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Debt's toxic impact on your health
Overwhelmed by debt? You may want to get your blood pressure checked.
A new study from medical researchers at Northwestern University found that people struggling with excessive debt are not only more stressed out than folks with smaller loan payments; they're also more likely to have higher blood pressure and clinically significant depression -- setting them up for serious health problems as they age.
The study, published this month by the academic journal Social Science and Medicine, looked specifically at young adults -- many of whom are struggling with crushing student loan debt -- and analyzed the debtors' physical and emotional health readings.
Young adults aged 24 to 32 who had more debt than they could afford to repay -- even if they sold everything they owned -- had significantly higher blood pressure than their less-indebted peers. They also reported feeling lousier overall and having more depressive symptoms.
The more debt a young person had, the more likely he or she was to be in poorer physical and emotional health, say researchers, despite being well below the traditional age for heart-related problems.
"You wouldn't necessarily expect to see associations between debt and physical health in people who are so young," said lead study author Elizabeth Sweet in a news release summarizing the study's findings. "We need to be aware of this association and understand it better," she said -- particularly since the toxic effects of stress can have long-term implications for a person's health.
High blood pressure, for example, can eventually lead to heart disease -- especially if left unchecked -- and increases a person's risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Depression, meanwhile, has also been linked to poor health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease, and increases a person's risk of dying from it. (A 2011 study from researchers at Emory University, for example, found that young women who suffered from depression before the age of 40 were significantly more likely to develop and die from heart disease.)
The physical impact that financial stress can have on a person's body is especially poignant for young people today, warned Sweet, because so many are living with large amounts of debt -- either from student loans, credit cards or other types of debt.
"We now live in a debt-fueled economy," said Sweet.
"It's important to understand the health consequences associated with debt," she added, so that people can take steps now to aggressively combat the emotional and physical residue of overwhelming debt -- and hopefully avoid taking on more debt than they can handle.
What you can do now
The statistics offered by the Northwestern University study are grim. However, the good news is that high blood pressure and debt-related depression are treatable -- especially if you catch them early.
If you're struggling with more debt than you can afford, you may want to consult with your doctor and talk with him or her about steps you can take now to safeguard your health and better manage your stress.
Research shows that simple lifestyle changes, such as routine exercise and a heart-healthy diet, can make a big impact on your health.
Less traditional lifestyle changes, such as regular meditation, may also help. For example, a growing body of research has found that incorporating mindfulness meditation into your daily routine can help lower stress and temper impulsive behavior -- making you less likely to add to that heart-damaging pile of debt.
Getting in touch with a credit counselor may also be a good idea -- especially if you're feeling lost, or tapped out of ideas for conquering your debt.
A credit counselor can help you identify fresh strategies for shaving your debt down to a more manageable level -- and can help you brainstorm ways to improve your overall financial health.
Identifying and taking concrete steps to reduce your debt will help give you a sense of control over your finances -- which is important for reducing debt-related anxiety. It may also help you whittle your balances down faster so that you spend less time ruminating over the bills that are crowding your life.
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