Carrying on student debt for years can be detrimental to your heart health

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Students at the George Washington University campus in Washington, DC, U.S. on Thursday, September 9, 2021. Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg/Getty Images
  • Long-term student debt is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and higher levels of chronic inflammation.
  • In 2020, the average US student debt on graduation from university or college ranged from $18,350 in Utah to almost $40,000 in New Hampshire.
  • People with midlife debt were 90 percent more likely to have a psychiatric disorder and 31 percent more likely to have high blood pressure.

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

But continuing unpaid college debt — or taking on new college debt — between young adulthood and midlife also increases cardiovascular disease risk, according to a new study.

In contrast, researchers found that adults who were able to pay off college debt had similar or better heart health than people who never faced college debt.

“As the cost of college has increased, students and their families have taken on more debt to get to and stay in college,” the study author said Adam M. Lippert, Ph.Dan assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver said in a press release.

In 2020, the average US student debt on graduation from university or college ranged from $18,350 in Utah to almost $40,000 in New Hampshire The Institute for University Access and Success.

This is the average, so some students take on much more debt to pay for school.

“Unless steps are taken to lower the cost of college and forgive outstanding debt, the health consequences of rising student loan 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 enrolled over 20,000 adolescents in grades 7 through 12.

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

In the latest round, around 4,200 people – now aged 33 to 44 – underwent medical screening, including the giving of 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 treatments, cigarette smoking, diabetes and body mass index.

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

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

Of these, 37 percent reported no student debt at that time; 12 percent had paid off their student loans by then; 28 percent took out student loans at the time; and 24 percent had persistent student debt.

Researchers found that people who constantly had college debt or got into debt had higher cardiovascular risk scores than people who never had college debt or had never paid off their loans.

Additionally, people who constantly had college debt had higher readings of chronic inflammation than those who never had debt. And those who took on debt had higher levels of inflammation compared to those who paid off their loans.

In contrast, people who were able to pay off college debt had lower cardiovascular risk scores than people who never owed college or university.

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

Joseph D Wolfe, PhDassociate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said the new study’s findings are consistent with other research on the effects of debt on health.

“In my work we have found that health problems are 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 linked to an asset. The most common types are credit cards, payday loans, and medical debt.

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

In a study published last year in The Journals of Gerontology: Series BWolfe and his colleagues found that people with over-indebtedness in midlife were 90 percent more likely to have a psychiatric disorder and 31 percent more likely to have high blood pressure.

“Health problems are usually linked to unsecured debt through the stress and worries associated with financial difficulties,” he said.

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

“In my research, I found that this is high [secured] Debt is related to the high value of an individual’s wealth,” Wolfe said. “In these cases, debt can even have a positive association with health.”

But people with secured debt can also experience financial stress, for example when they can’t afford their mortgage payments.

In another study Adrianne Frech, PhDan associate professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Health Professions, and her colleagues found that carrying long-term unsecured debt was associated with poorer physical health later in life.

Specifically, they found that people with consistently high levels of debt were 76 percent more likely to experience pain later in life that interfered with their daily activities, compared to those with no unsecured debt.

This level of pain can even affect their ability to work and make it difficult for them to pay their debts.

“The more surprising finding,” Frech added, “is that people who repay their debt earlier in adulthood continue to experience more pain at age 50 than people who had no unsecured debt at all.”

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

This research was published in the journal last year SSM – Public Health.

Although student loans aren’t typically considered unsecured debt, for those who don’t finish school, these loans can feel similar to credit card debt or medical debt, Frech said.

“They have this enormous debt that isn’t tied to a degree’s net worth,” she said. “So student debt can put someone in a really vulnerable position if they don’t graduate from college.”

However, some people who graduate from university or college still have difficulty paying off their student loans, which negatively impacts their health.

Wolfe doesn’t see student debt as inherently unhealthy. Instead, he said it depends on the amount of debt and the amount of time people carry that debt.

Likewise, Lippert and his colleagues write that the new study’s findings suggest college debt is a “double-edged sword.”

Taking out student loans gives people access to colleges and universities, which can benefit heart-related and overall health — at least for those who can repay their loans.

Other research shows that a four-year degree is associated with it better health and less inflammation.

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

“The adverse effects of poverty or lack of college readiness outweigh the impact of student loans on cardiovascular health,” Lippert told Healthline.

However, for people struggling to pay off their debts, these health benefits may be limited.

“Our results show that those who have college degrees have better cardiovascular health than those without a four-year qualification,” Lippert said, “although these benefits are weaker for those with college degrees who manage student loan debt over multiple 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 address this issue by making higher education more affordable and improving the pipeline from academia to the workforce,” Wolfe said.

Additionally, “we can create policies that regulate companies that are holding people captive for decades [student] debt,” he added.

Frech believes more needs to be done to help students get the most out of college debt.

“Universities make money from high enrollments, so they will do whatever it takes to get students to enroll initially,” she said.

“But they won’t always do enough to make students successful or weed out students who may not be as successful as they need to be,” she added.