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Students on campus at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg/Getty Images
  • Long-term student debt is linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and higher levels of chronic inflammation.
  • In 2020, the average U.S. student debt at graduation from university or college ranged from $18,350 in Utah to almost $40,000 in New Hampshire.
  • People with over-indebtedness in midlife were 90 percent more likely to have a psychiatric disorder and 31 percent more likely to have hypertension.

Student debt, like other financial stressors, can impact a person’s mental health and well-being and reduce their life satisfaction.

But consistently having unpaid student debt — or taking on new student debt — between young adulthood and mid-life also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a new study.

In contrast, researchers found that adults who could repay their student debt had similar or better heart health as people who never faced student debt.

“As the cost of college has increased, students and their families have taken on more debt to get to and stay in college,” study author Adam M. Lippert, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado Denver, said in a press release.

In 2020, the average U.S. student debt at graduation from university or college ranged from $18,350 in Utah to almost $40,000 in New Hampshire, according to The Institute for College Access & Success.

This is the average, so some students take on much more debt to pay for school.

“Unless something is done to reduce the costs of going to college and forgive outstanding debts, the health consequences of climbing student loan debt are likely to grow,” said Lippert.

Researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (also known as Add Health), which included over 20,000 adolescents in grades 7 through 12.

Participants were first interviewed in 1994-95 and then four more times between then and 2018.

During the last round, around 4,200 people — now 33 to 44 years old — underwent medical exams, including providing blood samples.

Researchers calculated each person’s risk of cardiovascular disease based on several factors — sex, age, blood pressure, use of high blood pressure treatments, cigarette smoking, diabetes, and body-mass index.

This provided an estimate of a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease — such as heart failure, heart attack, stroke, and coronary death — over the next 30 years.

Researchers also used participants’ blood samples to measure C-reactive protein (CRP), a biomarker of inflammation in the body. This has been linked to ongoing or chronic stress exposure.

In addition, participants answered questions about their student debt during the third and fifth rounds of interviews.

Of those, 37 percent reported no student debt at those times; 12 percent had paid off their student loans by then; 28 percent took out student loans during those times; and 24 percent had student debt throughout.

Researchers found that people who consistently had student debt or took on debt had higher cardiovascular risk scores compared to people who had never had student debt or had paid off their loans.

In addition, people who consistently had student debt had higher measures of chronic inflammation compared to those who never had debt. And those who took on debt had higher levels of inflammation compared to those who had paid off their loans.

In contrast, people who could pay off their student debt had lower cardiovascular risk scores than people who never had debt from university or college.

The study was published May 3 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Joseph D. Wolfe, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said the results of the new study are consistent with other research on the impact of debt on health.

“In the work I’ve done, we find that health problems related to over-indebtedness [owing more money than you own in assets] are often due to unsecured debts,” he said.

Unsecured debt is any debt that isn’t attached to an asset. The most common types are credit cards, payday loans, and medical debt.

This differs from secured debts such as a mortgage or a car loan, which are tied to a physical asset.

In a study published last year in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Wolfe and his colleagues found that people with over-indebtedness in midlife were 90 percent more likely to have a psychiatric disorder and 31 percent more likely to be diagnosed with high blood pressure.

“Health problems are usually linked to unsecured debt through the stress and worry related to financial difficulties,” he said.

Taking out a large loan to buy a house may not produce the same stress.

“In my research, I’ve found that high [secured] debt is related to the high worth of individuals assets,” said Wolfe. “In these cases, debt can even have a positive association with health.”

However, even people with secured debt can experience financial stress, such as when they can’t afford their mortgage payments.

In another study, Adrianne Frech, PhD, an associate professor in the University of Missouri’s School of Health Professions, and her colleagues found that carrying unsecured debt long-term was linked to poorer physical health later in life.

In particular, they found that people with consistently high debt were 76 percent more likely to have pain later in life that interfered with their daily activities compared to those with no unsecured debt.

This level of pain can even interfere with their ability to work, making it harder for them to pay off their debt.

“The more surprising finding,” Frech added, “is that people who pay down their debt earlier in adulthood continue to experience more pain around age 50 than people who didn’t have any unsecured debt at all.”

“So just having had this debt in the past was associated with higher pain,” she said.

This research was published last year in the journal SSM – Population Health.

Although student loans are not usually considered unsecured debt, Frech said for those who don’t finish school, these loans can feel similar to credit card debt or medical debt.

“You have this enormous debt that is not tied to the asset of a degree,” she said. “So student debt can put someone in a really precarious position if they don’t finish college.”

However, some people who finish university or college still struggle to pay off their student loans, negatively impacting their health.

Wolfe doesn’t see student debt as inherently harmful to health. Instead, he said it depends on the amount of debt and the length of time people carry that debt.

Likewise, Lippert and his colleagues write that the results of the new study suggest that student debt is a “double-edged sword.”

Taking on student loans enables people to access college and university, which can boost heart-related and overall health — at least for those who can repay their loans.

Other research shows that having a four-year degree is linked to better health and lower inflammation.

Lippert and his colleagues write that, in general, the health-related benefits of graduating from college or university outweigh the risks of taking on student loans.

“The negative effects of poverty or lacking a college credential outweigh the influence of student loan debt on cardiovascular health,” Lippert told Healthline.

However, for people who struggle to pay off their debt, these health benefits may be reduced.

“Our findings show that those who completed a college degree have better cardiovascular health than those without a four-year credential,” said Lippert, “though these benefits are weaker for college-educated people managing student loan debt over multiple years.”

This suggests that helping people maximize the benefits of their time at university or college could reduce the negative health impacts of student debt.

“We could address this issue by making higher education more affordable and improve the pipeline from academia to the workforce,” said Wolfe.

Also, “we can create policies that regulate companies trapping individuals in decades of [student] debt,” he added.

Frech thinks more needs to be done to help students get the most benefits out of the student debt they take on.

“Universities make money by having high enrollments, so they will do anything they can to get the student to initially enroll,” she said.

“But they won’t always do enough to make students successful or to screen out students who might not be as successful as they need to be,” she added.