April 17, 2000

A Fate Worse than Debt: Credit Cards and Stress

Most Americans know from personal experience that high credit card debt is bad for their financial health. A new study by an Ohio State University research team shows that it may be just as bad for their physical and mental health.

The reason? Stress.

According to the study, which was published in the February 2000 issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine, people who reported high levels of stress about debt had more physical problems and reported worse health than those with lower levels of debt. Furthermore, people with a high proportion of their income tied up in credit card debt reported that they were in poorer physical health.

The study was based on two separate telephone surveys that reached 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, director of Ohio State's Center for Survey Research and the study's co-author, along with Patricia Drentea, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham."The stress of owing money, and [the] knowledge that we're paying high interest rates may lead to increased stress resulting in worsening health."

'Another aspect to explore is the degree to which credit card stress is reflected in more tense interpersonal relations with family members.'

Though Lavrakas and Drentea say the effect of credit card debt on health is not nearly as profound as factors such as age, education, weight, and tobacco use, the association remains significant even after factors such as these are taken into account.

Asked to comment, TheDoctor's Bruce McEwen, Ph.D., Alfred E. Mirsky Professor and Head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University, called the study "a reasonable beginning," but added: "What I would like to see is documentation of specific physiological conditions like high blood pressure, obesity, number of colds, or other illnesses. Another aspect to explore is the degree to which credit card stress is reflected in more tense interpersonal relations with family members."

To measure health, the Ohio State researchers 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 involved asking respondents to rate how difficult it was for them to do simple activities such as climbing stairs or carrying groceries. The results were then compared to responses on a debt stress index. This index, designed by Lavrakas, asked participants to rate their degree of worry about debt. This method showed a strong relationship between debt stress and health - the more people worried about debt, the more it affected their health.

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