It’s a potential health risk to be a college grad these days.
Graduates who struggle to pay off their student loan debt are more prone to heart disease, according to a new study published Tuesday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The negative effects of that stress, in fact, can even outweigh the benefits of higher education, researchers from the University of Colorado found.
“As the cost of college has increased, students and their families have taken on more debt to get to and stay in college,” said lead study author Adam Lippert, Ph.D., in a statement to South West News Service. But that “massive financial burden,” as he describes it, is familiar to many Americans, yet “we know little about the potential long-term health consequences of this debt.”
Lippert continued, “Previous research showed that, in the short term, student debt burdens were associated with self-reported health and mental health, so we were interested in understanding whether student debt was associated with cardiovascular illness among adults in early mid-life.”
Nearly 43 million Americans have accumulated some sort of student loan debt as of 2021, with the total outstanding debt owed ringing in at $1.59 trillion, according to data from the US Department of Education.
The new study discovered that graduates who didn’t pay off their debt in young adulthood, waiting until mid-life, were more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, which is deemed the world’s deadliest health condition by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the US alone, about 659,000 succumb to heart disease annually, or 1 in 4 people.
Researchers also found that the health of individuals who did pay off their loans early was as good or even better than people who had never struggled with student loans.
Research participants were divided into four groups: Those who never had student loans (37%), people who paid it off (12%), individuals who took on new debt (28%) and people who were always in debt (24%).
Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, the study analyzed more than 20,000 participants who were tracked from ages 12 to 44. Out of those, 4,193 people participated in medical exams at home.
Lippert’s research team used the Framingham Risk measurement tool to estimate the odds of heart disease in the next 30 years of life, taking into consideration age, sex, blood pressure, body mass index, smoking status and diabetes diagnosis. Researchers also looked at the levels of the blood chemical C-reactive protein, which can indicate chronic or systemic inflammation.
While people who hadn’t paid off their loans had a higher risk score, those who had paid off their debt had significantly lower risk scores than individuals who had never faced debt.
“Our study respondents came of age and went to college at a time when student debt was rapidly rising with an average debt of around $25,000 for four-year college graduates,” Lippert said. “It has risen more since then, leaving young cohorts with more student debt than any before them.”
The findings highlight the potential public health issues of student loan debt, he said, and it completely undermines the educational and socioeconomic advantages of attending higher education.
“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.”