Living with credit

Low credit score linked to higher heart disease risk

Kelly Dilworth

A low credit score isn’t just bad for your wallet. It could also indicate you’re struggling with your health.

According to a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, bad credit is strongly linked to poorer heart health.

“Following 1,000 individuals from birth to midlife, we show that low credit scores predict cardiovascular disease risk,” write study authors Salomon Israel, Avshalom Caspi, Daniel Belsky, HonaLee Harrington, Sean Hogan, Renate Houts, Sandhya Ramrakha, Seth Sanders, Richie Poulton and Terrie Moffat in the report, “Credit Scores, Cardiovascular Disease Risk and Human Capital.”

A low credit score may also predict key personality traits — such as an inability to control one’s impulses — that influence physical and financial well-being, say researchers. And that may be why so many businesses that don’t lend money — such as employers, medical providers and insurance companies — are so interested in your credit history.

What your credit score says about your health

“Some proponents of credit scoring practices beyond lending argue that the same attributes that determine creditworthiness also guide behavior in other domains of life,” they write. For example, “individuals who avoid risky and impulsive decisions, who plan and manage their finances and who generally organize their lives are more likely to achieve better job performance, safer driving and better health.”

So if you’re the kind of person who routinely loses your credit card bills or charges more than you afford, you may also be the kind of person who takes bigger risks on the road or regularly forgets to exercise or floss. “What it comes down to is that people who don’t take care of their money don’t take care of their health,” said study co-author Terrie Moffitt in a Nov. 17 news release. Similarly, people who don’t take care of their personal well-being may also be more lax about other areas of their life, such as their work.

Inside the study
Researchers came to their conclusions after studying the health and financial records of 1,037 middle-aged participants in a longitudinal study that began when the participants were kids. The researchers also looked at participants’ education up to the age of 38, their IQ test results and various personality assessments.

At first, researchers wondered whether adverse events, such as unemployment, might have contributed to participants’ lower credit scores and heart health. But even though streaks of bad luck did appear to worsen some participants’ physical and financial well-being, the events didn’t fully account for the results that researchers were seeing.

The researchers also looked at whether income accounted for why some people with lower scores tended to be less healthy. Research has previously shown that income can help predict consumers’ health. But that didn’t tell the whole story either.

It wasn’t until the researchers began assessing participants’ personality traits — such as how conscientious they tended to be — that they were able to more fully account for such a strong link between credit scores and health.

“Interestingly, credit scores did not simply act as a proxy for income,” write the study authors. “Instead, the link between credit scores and cardiovascular risk was largely explained by study members’ level of human capital: their educational attainment, cognitive ability and self control.” And, in many cases, these traits showed up long before the participants ever took out a loan.

Lifelong consequences
Before concluding the study, the researchers looked at decades-old personality assessments that were conducted when the participants were kids and found that participants who had lower levels of self-control as 10-year-olds also tended to have lower credit scores as adults. They were also more likely to be in poorer health, leading researchers to conclude that the habits and attributes that participants developed as kids may have profoundly influenced the personal and financial choices they made later on.

“We found that a portion of the link between credit scores and cardiovascular disease risk was explained by personal characteristics already present in the first decade of life,” write the authors. “Compared with children in the top quintile of self control, children in the bottom quintile went on to develop heart ages that were on average 4 years older and credit scores that were on average 103 points lower.”

The findings are significant, the authors say, because “interventions successful at improving children’s self-control may benefit their financial and physical well-being decades later.” If teachers and parents focus on boosting kids’ self-discipline, they may be able to indirectly influence the credit scores their kids develop as adults.

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