If young people are drowning in debt, their blood pressure
may be on the rise and their health could suffer. A new Northwestern Medicine®
study has found that high financial debt is associated with higher diastolic
blood pressure and poorer self-reported general and mental health in young
The study, published in the August issue of Social Science
and Medicine, offers a glimpse into the impact debt may have on the health of
“We now live in a debt-fuelled economy,” said Elizabeth
Sweet, lead author of the study. “Since the 1980s American household debt has
tripled. It’s important to understand the health consequences associated with
Sweet is an assistant professor of medical social sciences
at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a faculty associate
of Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health, at the
Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern.
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.
Previous studies have found evidence that debt is associated
with adverse psychological health, but this is the first to look at physical
health as well.
Here are some key
findings of the study:
• 20% of
participants reported that they would still be in debt if they liquidated all
of their assets (high debt-to-asset-ratio).
debt-to-asset ratio was associated with higher perceived stress and depression,
worse self-reported general health and higher diastolic blood pressure.
Those with higher debt were found to have a 1.3% increase
(relative to the mean) in diastolic blood pressure, which is clinically significant. A two-point
increase in diastolic blood pressure, for example, is associated with a 17%
higher risk of hypertension and a 15% higher risk of stroke.
The researchers found that individuals with high compared to
low debt reported higher levels of perceived stress (representing an 11.7%
increase relative to the mean) and higher depressive symptoms (a 13.2% increase
relative to the mean).
“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.”
In the study, personal financial debt was measured in two
ways. Participants were asked about their debt-to-asset ratio by answering this
question: “Suppose you and others in your household were to sell all of your
major possessions (including your home), turn all of your investments and other
assets into cash, and pay off all of your debts. Would you have something left
over, break even or be in debt?”
Second, participants were asked how much debt, besides a
home mortgage, they have. Response categories ranged from “less than R9 970.00”
to “R249 255.00 or more".
Perceived stress, depressive symptoms and general health
were measured through a series of questions. Both systolic and diastolic blood
pressures were measured on each participant by a field interviewer.
Other study authors include Thomas W. McDade, professor of
anthropology at Northwestern and director of C2S: The Center on Social
Disparities and Health, at the Institute for Policy Research, Emma K.
Adam, professor of human development and social policy at
C2S and in the school of education and social policy at Northwestern, and
Arijit Nandi, assistant professor at the Institute for Health and Social Policy
and the department of epidemiology, biostatistics and occupational health at
Support for the analyses presented in this paper was
provided by grant #1R01 HD053731-01 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development.