May 5, 2022 — The stress and anxiety of living with substantial student debt is nothing new. As many as 43 million Americans face the dual challenges of trying to prosper and repay federal college loans at the same time.
A new study could add another worry: For the first time, researchers have linked unpaid student debt to a greater risk for cardiovascular disease in midlife.
Reactions from people with student debt amounted to “great, another thing to worry about.”
“What else can we pile on the shoulders of debtors?” asked Karen Lee, a Massachusetts woman who moderates the ForgiveStudentLoanDebt.com group on Facebook.
Case in point would be Pam Putnam-Colasanti, a 63-year-old woman who received her master’s degree in 2009 from Brightwood College in Fort Lauderdale. She commented in the Facebook group that she has cardiovascular disease and “crippling debt for the last 18 years.”
The big picture here is not much brighter.
“Our findings reveal some hidden costs — health costs, in this case — of failing to act on the nation’s student loan debt crisis,” says researcher Adam Lippert, PhD, from the University of Colorado.
Moving people toward a future of cardiovascular illness “is hardly sound fiscal policy,” Lippert says.
On the plus side, student debt is a potentially modifiable risk factor. If federal officials act to relieve the burden associated with student debt, many may see improved health and at least the delay of the onset of chronic conditions, Lippert says.
President Joe Biden is reportedly getting close to coming through on his promise to ease the burden of student debt for many Americans. His proposals range from cutting at least $10,000 to amounts less than $50,000 from student loan debt, potentially linked to income levels.
Some research has already shown other types of debt may lead to heart trouble, including one study that looked at the connection between credit card debt and poor health. The current study was published online May 3 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Stress is tied to higher levels of inflammation. Chronic inflammation was higher for people in the study with ongoing college debt compared to others who managed to pay off their debt or who never took out student loans.
People with debt also face higher risks of other heart failure.
More Than Half Carry Debt
More than one-third of the nearly 4,200 study participants had no student debt. Twelve percent paid off their loans, 28% took on student debt, and 24% consistently remained in debt.
Cardiovascular risk scores were higher for people who consistently were in debt or took on new debt compared to those never in debt.
Those who had student loans and paid them off had lower cardiovascular risks than those who were never in debt.
Another implication of the study is that student debt reduces the health and economic benefits many people with 4-year college degrees experience in general.
Student debt reported at the household level is a potential limitation of the research because family member debt could have contributed to results. However, the researchers repeated the evaluation in people without adult children and results were similar.
Another limitation was measuring risk at a single time point. Future studies should look at multiple measures of cardiovascular risk and inflammation levels over time, the researchers suggest.