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High debt may harm your health, study finds

Aug. 15, 2013
Courtesy of Northwestern University
and World Science staff

Peo­ple who are drown­ing in debt may suf­fer high­er blood pres­sure and poorer health, re­search­ers warn.

A study has found that high debt is as­so­ci­at­ed with high­er di­as­tol­ic blood pres­sure and poorer self-re­ported gen­er­al and men­tal health in young adults. Di­as­tol­ic blood pres­sure, the “bot­tom” num­ber in a blood pres­sure read­ing, is the pres­sure in the ar­ter­ies when the heart rests be­tween beats.

“We now live in a debt-fueled econ­o­my,” said Eliz­a­beth Sweet, lead au­thor of the study at the North­west­ern Uni­vers­ity Fein­berg School of Med­i­cine in Ev­ans­ton, Ill. “Since the 1980s Amer­i­can house­hold debt has tripled. It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand the health con­se­quenc­es as­so­ci­at­ed with debt.”

The study is pub­lished in the Au­gust is­sue of the jour­nal So­cial Sci­ence and Med­i­cine. The re­search­ers used da­ta from a U.S. sur­vey known as the Na­t­ional Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Study of Ad­o­les­cent Health to ex­plore the debt-health link in 8,400 young adults, ages 24 to 32. Pre­vi­ous stud­ies have linked debt to poorer psy­cho­log­i­cal health, but this is the first to look at phys­i­cal health, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said.

Peo­ple with high­er debt were found to have a 1.3 per­cent high­er than av­er­age di­as­tol­ic blood pres­sure. That may seem small, but a mere two-point in­crease is as­so­ci­at­ed with a 17 per­cent high­er risk of hy­per­ten­sion and a 15 per­cent high­er risk of stroke, the sci­en­tists not­ed. 

“You would­n’t nec­es­sarily ex­pect to see as­socia­t­ions be­tween debt and phys­i­cal health in peo­ple who are so young,” Sweet said. “We need to be aware of this as­socia­t­ion and un­der­stand it bet­ter. Our study is just a first peek at how debt may im­pact phys­i­cal health.”

Twen­ty per­cent of par­ti­ci­pants re­ported that they would still be in debt if they liq­ui­dat­ed all of their as­sets (high debt-to-asset-ra­tio), ac­cord­ing to the find­ings. High­er debt-to-asset ra­tio was as­so­ci­at­ed with high­er per­ceived stress and de­pres­sion.


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People who are drowning in debt may suffer higher blood pressure and poorer health, researchers warn. A study has found that high debt is associated with higher diastolic blood pressure and poorer self-reported general and mental health in young adults. Diastolic blood pressure, the “bottom” number in a blood pressure reading, is the pressure in the arteries when the heart rests between beats. “We now live in a debt-fueled economy,” said Elizabeth Sweet, lead author of the study at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Evanston, Ill. “Since the 1980s American household debt has tripled. It’s important to understand the health consequences associated with debt.” The study is published in the August issue of the journal Social Science and Medicine. The researchers used data from a survey known as the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to explore the debt-health link in 8,400 young adults, ages 24 to 32. Previous studies have linked debt to poorer psychological health, but this is the first to look at physical health, the investigators said. People with higher debt were found to have a 1.3 percent higher than average diastolic blood pressure. That may seem small, but a mere two-point increase is associated with a 17 percent higher risk of hypertension and a 15 percent higher risk of stroke, the scientists noted. “You wouldn’t necessarily expect to see associations between debt and physical health in people who are so young,” Sweet said. “We need to be aware of this association and understand it better. Our study is just a first peek at how debt may impact physical health.” Twenty percent of participants reported that they would still be in debt if they liquidated all of their assets (high debt-to-asset-ratio), according to the findings. Higher debt-to-asset ratio was associated with higher perceived stress and depression.