Being in debt for years can harm your heart health

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Students on the campus of George Washington University in Washington, DC, U.S., Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg/Getty Images
  • Long-term student debt is linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and higher levels of chronic inflammation.
  • In 2020, average student debt in the United States upon graduation from university or college ranged from $18,350 in Utah to nearly $40,000 in New Hampshire.
  • Over-indebted people in their 40s were 90% more likely to have a psychiatric disorder and 31% more likely to have high blood pressure.

Student debt, like other financial stressors, can impact a person’s mental health and well-being and reduce life satisfaction.

But consistently having unpaid student debt — or taking on new student debt — between young adulthood and midlife also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, a new study has found.

On the other hand, researchers found that adults who could pay off their student debt had similar or better heart health than people who had never faced student debt.

“As the cost of college has risen, students and their families have taken on more debt to get to and stay in college,” study author Adam M. Lippert, PhDassistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Denver, said in a Press release.

In 2020, the average US student debt at the end of a university or college ranged from $18,350 in Utah to nearly $40,000 in New Hampshire, according to The Institute for College Access and Success.

This is the average, so some students go into much more debt to pay for their studies.

“Unless something is done to lower the costs of going to college and cancel outstanding debt, the health consequences of rising student debt are likely to increase,” Lippert said.

The researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (also known as Add Health), which included more than 20,000 adolescents in grades 7 through 12.

Participants were first interviewed in 1994-95 and four more times between then and 2018.

In the last round, around 4,200 people – now aged between 33 and 44 – underwent medical examinations, including providing blood samples.

The researchers calculated each person’s risk of cardiovascular disease based on several factors: gender, age, blood pressure, use of high blood pressure medications, smoking, diabetes, and index of body mass.

This provided an estimate of a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease – such as heart failure, heart attack, stroke and coronary death – over the next 30 years.

The researchers also used participants’ blood samples to measure C-reactive protein (CRP), a biomarker of inflammation in the body. This has been linked to continuous or chronic exposure to stress.

In addition, participants answered questions about their student debt in the third and fifth rounds of interviews.

Of these, 37% reported no student debt at these times; 12% had then repaid their student loans; 28% took out student loans during these periods; and 24 percent had lifelong student debt.

The researchers found that people who constantly had student debt or who had taken on debt had higher cardiovascular risk scores than people who had never had student debt or who had repaid their loans.

Additionally, people who consistently had student debt had higher measures of chronic inflammation than those who had never had student debt. And those who took on debt had higher levels of inflammation than those who had paid off their loans.

In contrast, people who could repay their college debt had lower cardiovascular risk scores than those who had never incurred university or college debt.

The study was published on May 3 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Joseph D. Wolfe, Ph.D.associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said the findings of the new study are consistent with other research on the impact of debt on health.

“In the work that I have carried out, we see that the health problems linked to over-indebtedness [owing more money than you own in assets] are often due to unsecured debt,” he said.

Unsecured debt is any debt that is not attached to an asset. The most common types are credit cards, payday loans, and medical debt.

This differs from secured debts such as a mortgage or car loan, which are tied to a physical asset.

In a study published last year in Gerontology journals: series BWolfe and his colleagues found that over-indebted people in their 40s were 90% more likely to have a psychiatric disorder and 31% more likely to be diagnosed with high blood pressure.

“Health problems are usually linked to unsecured debt by the stress and worry of financial hardship,” he said.

Taking out a large loan to buy a home may not produce the same stress.

“In my research, I found that [secured] debt is tied to the high value of individuals’ assets,” Wolfe said. “In these cases, debt may even have a positive association with health.”

However, even people with secured debt can experience financial difficulties, such as when they cannot pay their mortgage payments.

In another study, Adrianne Frech, PhDassociate professor at the University of Missouri School of Health Professions, and his colleagues found that having long-term unsecured debt was linked to poor physical health later in life.

In particular, they found that people with persistent debt were 76% more likely to have pain later in life that interfered with their daily activities compared to those without unsecured debt.

This level of pain can even interfere with their ability to work, making it harder for them to pay off their debt.

“The most surprising finding,” Frech added, “is that people who pay off debt earlier in adulthood continue to experience more pain around age 50 than people who had no debt. not guaranteed.”

“So just having had that debt in the past was associated with higher pain,” she said.

This research was published last year in the journal MHS – Population Health.

Although student loans aren’t generally considered unsecured debt, Frech said, for those who don’t finish school, these loans can look like credit card debt or medical debt.

“You have this massive debt that’s not tied to any degree assets,” she said. “So student debt can put someone in a very precarious position if they don’t finish college.”

However, some people who finish university or college still find it difficult to repay their student loans, which has a negative impact on their health.

Wolfe does not view student debt as inherently harmful to health. Instead, he said it depends on the amount of debt and how long people carry that debt.

Similarly, Lippert and his colleagues write that the findings of the new study suggest that student debt is a “double-edged sword.”

Taking out student loans gives people access to college and university, which can improve heart and overall health — at least for those who can repay their loans.

Other research shows that having a four-year degree is linked to better health and reduce inflammation.

Lippert and his colleagues write that in general, the health benefits of earning a college or university degree outweigh the risks of student loans.

“The negative effects of poverty or not having a college degree outweigh the influence of student debt on cardiovascular health,” Lippert told Healthline.

However, for people who are struggling to repay their debt, these health benefits may be reduced.

“Our results show that those with a college degree had better cardiovascular health than those without a four-year degree,” Lippert said, “although these benefits were weaker for those with a college degree. who manage student loan debt over several years”.

This suggests that helping people maximize the benefits of their time at university or college could reduce the negative health effects of student debt.

“We could solve this problem by making higher education more affordable and improving the pathway between academia and the workforce,” Wolfe said.

Further, “we can create policies that regulate companies that trap individuals for decades of [student] debt,” he added.

Frech believes more needs to be done to help students make the most of the student debt they incur.

“Universities make money by having high enrollments, so they will do whatever they can to get the student to enroll initially,” she said.

“But they won’t always do enough to make students successful or to weed out students who might not be doing the way they should,” she added.

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