The Burdens Of Debt

Carrying Unsecured Debt throughout Life Tied To Poorer Physical Health

Boomers working with ’stagnant wages’ are actually experiencing ‘physical pain’

A recent study, ‘Trajectories of Unsecured Debt and Health at Midlife’, from University Of Missouri’s Adrienne French and co-authors Jason Houle of Dartmouth College and Dmitry Tumin of East Carolina University, measures the financial health of consumers. Access the research here.

Most people would likely agree that carrying “bad” or unsecured debt—such as credit card debt and payday loans—can be stressful and anxiety inducing.

Now, a researcher at the University of Missouri has found that the stress of carrying unsecured debt throughout adulthood is also linked to poorer physical health conditions, including pain that interferes with daily activities. Adrianne Frech, a medical sociologist and associate professor in the MU School of Health Professions, analyzed data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to examine the financial health of nearly 8,000 ‘Baby Boomers’ from age 28 to age 40 as well as their physical health at age 50.

Debt & Pain

“The most common trend we found was that people who carried their debt with them over time experienced worse physical health later in life,” Frech said. “Those with consistently high debt were 76% more likely to have pain that interfered with their daily life compared to those with no unsecured debt, and what surprised us the most was that even the people who did pay down their debt over time were still 50% more likely to have pain interference than those with no unsecured debt.”

Frech explained that individuals who take on unsecured debt often do so in circumstances of stress or desperation, such as following a medical emergency or having persistently low income even as the cost of living continues to rise with inflation.

“If people don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs, such as food and housing, they tend to take on credit card debt or a payday loan,” Frech said. “The solution is not simply to tell people to spend their money better or avoid medical emergencies—we must address the systematic inequalities that create these desperate circumstances in the first place.”

The connection between unsecured debt and poor health can quickly become a downward spiral. Stagnant wages can lead to people taking on unsecured debt, and the stress that debt causes negatively impacts physical health, which may limit people’s ability to work and pay off the high-interest debt, and the cycle continues, Frech said.

“Both debt and chronic pain can accumulate over time, so this cycle is hard to reverse once it starts,” Frech said. “Ideally, we could prevent individuals from taking on unsecured debt in the first place, and that starts with increasing wages so people could meet their basic needs.”

Excerpts from the study: ‘Trajectories of Unsecured Debt and Health at Midlife’

We advance research on indebtedness and physical health in two ways.

First, we build upon previous research by moving beyond cross-sectional or short-term estimates of the association between debt and health. Our study draws upon repeated measures of unsecured debt between ages 28–40. Following prior research, we examine trajectories of both absolute (total unsecured debt) and debt relative to financial resources, measured as the unsecured debt-to-household income ratio (DTI). If the negative health consequences of debt are driven by ability to repay debt, it is plausible that relative debt trajectories will be more strongly associated with health outcomes than absolute debt trajectories.

The most common trend we found was that people who carried their debt with them over time experienced worse physical health later in life...

However, because debt trajectories capture accumulation and repayment patterns over time (rather than a single point in time), we might also expect to see similar findings for both absolute and relative debt measures (Sun & Houle, 2020). Although previous research has examined the link between absolute and relative unsecured debt trajectories across the life course and mental health at midlife (Sun & Houle, 2020), no research to our knowledge has examined unsecured debt trajectories and physical health outcomes.

Our second contribution is to examine pain and disability as outcomes uniquely suited to capture the adverse effects of debt. Previous research on debt and physical health has typically focused on single-item measures of self-reported general physical health (Kyriopoulos et al., 2016). However, past middle age, self-rated health no longer tends to decline with age (Zheng et al., 2011), meaning that it may not adequately capture the accumulating effects of indebtedness over the life course.

Other studies have included diverse measures of physical health, such as heart attack, body mass index, blood pressure, and chronic conditions, which may be more sensitive for identifying accumulation of wear and tear associated with indebtedness (Boen et al., 2020; O’Rand & Hamil-Luker, 2020; Sweet et al., 2013). To date, however, this literature has not considered measures of chronic pain or disability, which may be especially likely to reflect accumulating physical effects of indebtedness.

Debt & Physical Health

Our findings demonstrated adverse associations between several trajectories of growing or sustained unsecured debt between ages 28–40, and poor physical health at midlife.

Because debt is a chronic stressor, we focused on health outcomes that reflected the cumulative wear and tear of the stress of debt repayment over time, including health conditions that limited the ability to work, joint pain or stiffness, and pain that interfered with daily activities. Prior studies on the health consequences of debt had subsumed these outcomes within a general measure of self-rated health, or have not considered the relationship between debt and physical health problems that worsen at midlife, such as chronic pain.

Consistent with prior research on mental health (Sun & Houle, 2020), we found that some respondents experienced chronically high levels of unsecured debt, while others experienced low or no debt, or debt that fluctuated with age. We found that holding persistent high debt over time was associated with worse health than other groups. Similarly, those with low debt early in life tended to remain low as they entered midlife, indicating the ability to save and grow wealth with time, contributing to better health outcomes. Nevertheless, even respondents who had paid down debt over time reported worse health than those who remained at relatively low levels of debt, demonstrating that the lasting strain of unsecured debt for midlife health.

Access the study here.


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