News Column

Heavy Debt Could Ruin Your Health, Study Finds

August 23, 2013

Tim Grant

health care

Many young Americans are so deep in hock for student loans, credit cards and other consumer debt that they may foresee themselves dying before they pay off their debt. A new study by medical researchers suggest they could even die from their debt.

High financial debt, especially relative to household assets, has a negative impact on the health of young adults, according to researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine who found heavy debt is associated with higher diastolic blood pressure and poorer self-reported general and mental health in young adults in the study group.

"We already know from other studies that being in debt is associated with stress, depression and even suicide," said Elizabeth Sweet, an assistant professor of medical sciences at Northwestern University and the lead author of the study. "Our study goes beyond that to show that debt is also associated with worse physical health -- including worse overall health and higher blood pressure.

"Debt doesn't just make you feel bad, but can actually make you physically sick."

At a time when household debt has become a fact of life for many people who are using credit to pay for basic necessities, the topic of debt -- whether student loans, mortgages or the credit industry in general -- is increasingly a part of the broader national conversation about social and economic policy. Ms. Sweet said this study suggests that, on top of everything else, the potential health consequences of debt should be part of that conversation as well.

Researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to explore the association between debt and both psychological and general health outcomes in 8,400 young adults, ages 24 to 32 years old. They found 20 percent of the participants reported they would still be in debt if they liquidated all of their assets.

Those with higher debt were found to have a 1.3 percent increase (relative to the mean) in diastolic blood pressure, which is a clinically significant level. A two-point increase in diastolic blood pressure, for example, is associated with a 17 percent higher risk of hypertension and a 15 percent higher risk of stroke.

The Northwestern Medicine study was published in the August issue of Social Science and Medicine.

"I'm not sure that young people are more or less vulnerable to the health impacts of debt than others," Ms. Sweet said. "That is a question that needs to be researched. The participants in our study were all young adults, and certainly we know that certain types of debt -- like student loans -- are of growing concern for that demographic.

"But debt is an issue for almost all Americans, and understanding the health implications of debt for people of all ages is important and should be studied."

The researchers did not know the specific kinds of debt the people in the study were wrestling with, but student loans are a growing issue for young people. The government has reported that the total amount of federal student loan debt has tipped the $1 trillion mark, a figure that dwarfs even credit card borrowing in this country. Debt has led a growing number of young adults to move back in with their parents and put many of their dreams of starting families and businesses on hold.

According to the credit reporting company Experian, young adults age 19 to 29 have the smallest amount of debt overall, but proportionally, their debts compared to the national averages are significant.

This generation's debt for mortgages is 17 percent lower than other age groups, but 421 percent higher for student loans, 136 percent higher for auto loans and 24 percent higher for credit cards.

"The participants in this study were young, 24 to 32 years old," Ms. Sweet said. "I think the fact that we are seeing an impact of debt on health in people this young is surprising, and speaks to how potent debt might be as a risk factor for disease. But it also speaks to how significant debt is becoming among young people."

Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.

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