Sick of Student Loans? Your Debt May Be Making You Physically Sick
September 11, 2013

A new study out of Northwestern University has revealed that if you’re saddled with student loans and are sick and tired of it – you may be literally sick and tired. While it’s common knowledge that being deep in debt can lead to stress and depression, this research goes much further and ties physical illness to debt. Here’s what researchers Elizabeth Sweet, Arijit Nandi, Emma Adam and Thomas McDade concluded and how it applies to your student loan debt situation:

Debt and depression

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Debt Is Growing and So Too Are Health Concerns

The research reveals that over the past three decades, household debt has tripled and consumer credit card debt has quadrupled and student loan debt has risen similarly. They mention that levels of debt are predictors of depression, mental distress, psychological disorders and suicide consideration or attempts.

We know also too well that as a nation, our health is growing worse – obesity and heart disease are on the rise. But is there a correlation to the increase in debt? Lead author Sweet says, “We now live in a debt-fueled economy. Since the 1980s American household debt has tripled. It’s important to understand the health consequences associated with debt.”

Drowning in debt

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Long Term Research Was Required to Provide Needed Answers

The researchers looked to a 15 year study entitled the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health for data on debt and health that would also allow them to consider previously existing conditions of both health and debt so the results wouldn’t be skewed. From this research, the study authors crunched numbers that you can read here if you’re deeply into mean, modeling and statistical significance.

Their analysis indicates that the psychological stress opens the door to physical disease along two different paths. First is that the mental issues can encourage unhealthy behaviors like poor dietary choices, lower levels of physical activity and increased risk of substance abuse. Second are stress-induced physiological changes that encourage diseases related to cardiovascular and metabolic disorders.

What the Research Showed

For those of you who are more like us and want to skip to the good stuff, here are some of the important findings:

* Total amount of debt alone is not necessarily an indicator of ill health effects. Instead debt relative to the ability to service it is a better indicator (i.e. if you owe $100,000 in student loans but are earning a six figure salary, you’re less likely to suffer as a result of your debt).

* Total amount of debt relative to assets was also an indicator of ill health effects including high blood pressure (i.e. even if you owed smaller amounts of student loan debts, if you had little to no assets, you may be more stressed).

* Total amount of debt higher than can be dealt with increases health risks associated with stroke and depression symptoms.

What’s particularly interesting is that the study participants were relatively young – aged 24-32 – and the authors mused that the effects may be greater when debt and age are combined.

Debt and depression

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Similar Research Done Abroad

A 2010 study out of Germany analyzed debt and health effects in an effort to determine if policy makers should address growing consumer debt in the European nation. They also discussed that the debt-health corollary might result in a “poverty trap” where “deteriorated health (due to indebtedness) induces job loss which results in even higher relative debt burdens.”

The German study differed from the American one in one critical factor – in addition to considering physical and mental health as the Northwestern study did, the Germans looked at obesity. What was interesting was that they found a corollary between unmanageable debt and deteriorated mental and physical health – but not one to obesity. It would be interesting to see a study in the US that considered this factor as well.

What Does This Study Mean for You?

If you’ve got more student debt than you can manage, this should be a red flag waving that you must do something to protect not only your financial health but your mental and physical well-being also. Here are some steps to consider:

#1 Know what you’re dealing with. Sign up for’s free student loan tool to get a clear understanding of your student debt.

#2 Apply for lower repayment plans such as Income Based Repayment (IBR) or Pay As You Earn (PAYE) to get your monthly payments decreased. Then you can work toward forgiveness at 20-25 years of the remaining balance.

#3 Find out if you qualify for discharge in bankruptcy, consider a public service career that will help with your debt or if you are limited in your work because of a disability, that can also help qualify you for a discharge.

#4 If you can’t afford to pay anything at all, apply for a deferment or forbearance to get a temporary break from your payments. This will give you time to look for a better job, second job or to get into a more affordable repayment plan.

#5 Remember that your debt doesn’t define you and try not to let it control your life.