(Reuters) - Adults who have fallen behind on mortgage payments exhibited higher rates of depression and are skipping meals and medications because they cannot pay the bills, a study published on Thursday found.

More than 20 percent of adults over age 50 who were delinquent on a mortgage developed elevated depression symptoms compared to 3 percent of non-delinquent peers, the study published in the American Journal of Public Health found.

The study tracked a sample of older homeowners who were more than two months behind on mortgage payments for two years to evaluate their health status.

In addition to showing signs of depression, adults facing mortgage default or foreclosure were also more likely to have trouble paying for food and medication, research showed.

The inability to pay for food and medicine also could lead to health consequences for spouses and children.

These short-term problems will likely contribute to more serious long-term adverse health effects, researchers said.

"It's not just about money," said Carolyn Cannuscio, a study co-author and University of Pennsylvania researcher.

"It's about human lives and human health and it's about how our society is going to recover from this major disruption to the places we call home," she said.

Researchers worry health disparities will grow particularly among Hispanic and African-American homeowners as a result of the housing crisis.

Cannuscio said both groups were already disadvantaged in terms of health before the real estate meltdown.

Adults facing foreclosure are likely to experience a host of other health problems, Cannuscio said.

A related study from a similar group of authors showed a majority of adults facing default or foreclosure in Nevada, California, Florida and Arizona were plagued by high rates of fatigue, back pain, nausea and trouble sleeping, she said.

In a separate survey of mortgage counselors, nearly 70 percent said many of their clients were depressed or lacked hope.

Nearly a third of those counselors said they had worked with someone in the last month who had contemplated suicide or self harm.

(Reporting by Lauren Keiper; Editing by David Bailey)