Americans are carrying higher levels of debt as they head into retirement, raising the specter of financial headaches in their old age, according to a white paper from Prudential Financial.

Much of that debt Americans are taking with them into retirement is housing debt, Prudential noted Tuesday in a white paper based on data from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Citing Federal Reserve data, Prudential reported that median-home values for those aged 65 to 74 rose 76%, while housing debt skyrocketed 393%.

This trend is the byproduct of low interest rates and high access to home equity lines of credit and mortgage refinancing activity.

"It is easy to accumulate debt and Americans are pretty comfortable with borrowing money," said Jill Perlin, Prudential Individual Life Insurance vice president of advanced marketing.

Another factor contributing to Americans' willingness to retire with debt is the change in income, as today both parties in a couple can collect Social Security since more households have dual incomes. Of course, income has also changed for the worse, as employer-funded pensions and retiree health coverage have become rarer.

"The increased debt means the monthly payments will eat away at their Social Security checks and the situation for many could become especially difficult for couples when one of them passes away," Perlin said.

Therefore, problems easily crop up for couples with high levels of housing debt, such as the forced sale of a home when a spouse dies. This whole scenario has fueled the life insurance industry, as retirees' higher debt burdens necessitate greater protections.

"These factors create a much greater need for older Americans to consider life insurance coverage to help ensure their family's financial security," Perlin said.

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