COLUMBUS, Ohio - High levels of credit card debt and debt stress may be bad for a person's health, a new study suggests.
Researchers at Ohio State University found that people who reported higher levels of stress about their debt showed higher levels of physical impairment and also reported worse health than those with lower levels of debt.
In addition, people with a higher proportion of their income tied up in credit card debt also showed higher levels of physical impairment.
The study was based on two separate telephone surveys involving a total of 1,036 Ohioans.
"Any one of us who has debt knows that it can cause stress in our lives, and it makes sense that this stress may be bad for our health," said Prof. Paul J. Lavrakas, co-author of the study and director of Ohio State's Center for Survey Research.
"The stress of owing money, and knowledge that we're paying high interest rates, may lead to increased stress resulting in worsening health."
While the results are not surprising, Lavrakas said "as far as we know, we're the first to actually look at the connection between credit card debt and health."
Lavrakas conducted the study with Patricia Drentea, a former graduate student at Ohio State who is now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Their results were published in the February 2000 issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine.
The researchers noted that the effect of credit card debt on health was not large when compared to factors such as age and education and specific health measures such as weight and tobacco use. But the association between debt and health remained strong and significant even after factors such as age and income were taken into account.
"We found that credit card debt and debt stress are good ways of tapping into how socio-economic factors affect health," Drentea said. "Researchers have long known that income, education and occupation are key socio-economic factors related to health. This research provides additional measures that will help us see a more complete picture."
In the study, the researchers used two different measures of health. They asked respondents to rate their own health on a scale of very poor to very good. They also used a standard scale of physical impairment, which asked respondents to rate how difficult it was for them to do everyday activities such as climbing stairs and carrying groceries.
These health measures were then compared to responses on a debt stress index. This index, designed by Lavrakas, asked participants how much they worried about their total debt. The study found a strong relationship between debt stress and health.
In addition, the health indicators were compared to a variety of measures related to actual credit card debt, including the number of charge cards the participants used, and whether they carried a balance from month to month. However, the findings showed that the only factor related to health was the ratio of credit card debt the participants owed to their total family income.
"This ratio is a more accurate measure of economic hardship than income alone because it taps into whether people are living within their means," Lavrakas said. "Two people may have the same income, but if one is deeper in debt, that person will probably be under more stress and have more health-related problems."
Debt stress may be particularly important because the study showed it plays a role in health over and above the debt-income ratio, Lavrakas said. In other words, the amount of debt a person has and their debt stress play an additive role, each contributing to worsening health.
The researchers also examined whether the fact that African Americans are more likely to have bigger debts and more debt stress may contribute to the fact that they also tend to be in poorer health than many whites. However, the study found no such relationship. Lavrakas said more research is needed to explore this finding.
The study was funded by grants from the Ohio State College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and by the Columbus Dispatch and WBNS-TV in Columbus.
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