The Debt Trap

Persistent student loan debt may have long-term health consequences, including increased risk for cardiovascular disease and chronic stress.

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Student loan debt might be a contentious topic for politicians, but one-third of voters in the 2022 midterm elections showed up to the polls because of student loans. For these voters, the answer is clear: they want and need debt relief.

Student loans have become increasingly common: by 2016, one-third of adults under age 30 had student loan debt, with a median outstanding amount of $17,000.

Relief is difficult to attain. Income-driven repayment plans, affordable options that set payments relative to income, were intended to cancel the remaining debt after years of repayment. But recent reports indicate that these programs are not successful, with low rates of cancellation.

Typically, higher educational attainment is associated with health benefits over the lifetime. Financial burden, on the other hand, leads to health burdens. Given the pervasiveness and persistence of student debt as a financial burden, more research needs to focus on how this debt impacts long-term health.

Adam Lippert and colleagues examined student debt and physical health. Analyzing data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, they looked for associations between household student loan debt, cardiovascular disease risk, and chronic stress. They estimated chronic stress by measuring proteins that are seen with chronic inflammation thought to be a result of stress.

The authors tracked risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and chronic stress (CRP) in early adulthood and early mid-life. The figure above compares four groups: those who were never in debt, those who paid off debt, those who took on new debt, and those consistently in debt. Those who took on debt or carried debt throughout the study had significantly higher risk for CVD and CRP.

Those who repaid loans demonstrated possible cardiovascular advantages, suggesting that college may have the most benefits for those who can later repay their loans. Regardless, the authors note that persistent debt could have long-term health consequences.

Databyte via Adam M. Lippert, Jason N. Houle, Katrina M. Walsemann. Student Debt and Cardiovascular Disease Risk Among U.S. Adults in Early Mid-Life. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2022.