Repaying student loans may cost students their health too

by Inez van Miltenburg

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In many countries, higher education is becoming more expensive as tuition fees rise and governmental financial support decreases. Financial stress related to repaying student loan debts can have a significant effect on students’ physical health, because it increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) later in life. That is what a recent US cohort study by Dr. Adam Lippert and colleagues has found.

This is worrisome, because financial stress regarding student debt is increasing. Having a student debt is becoming more common in the US, as well as in the Netherlands. On average, US students graduate with a $30,000 debt, and Dutch students with a €13,000-19,000 debt - although many believe the latter statistic is an underestimation.

Additionally, recent changes made in governmental study financing in the Netherlands has left a cohort of students with especially high student debts. Even though any remaining debt is forgiven after 35 years, being registered as a debtor in the system gives many negative financial consequences and additional stress.

It has long been known that having financial problems is bad for your health. Besides the known detrimental psychological effects and poor sleep, this study now also shows that severe physical health issues can result from worrying about how to repay your debt.

The researchers studied over 4000 participants from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescents to Adult Health (Add Health) that contains data collected from 1994 to 2018. They tracked the participants’ student debts from early adulthood (18-26 years old) into their early mid-life (22-44 years old). This was followed by a physical exam that tested for signs of increased risk for developing CVD.

the negative health effects of financial stress seem to outweigh previously found positive health effects that are associated with obtaining a degree

The study shows that people who struggle to repay their student debts or gain debt between early adulthood and early mid-life instead have an increased risk of CVD in the next 30 years of their lives. This risk is not increased for people who have repaid their debts or never borrowed at all, likely because it induces less stress. This is interesting, because the negative health effects of financial stress seem to outweigh previously found positive health effects that are associated with obtaining a degree.

These results emphasise that our health should be included in the government’s decision-making regarding giving financial support to students. Dr. Lippert stresses that these effects should not be underestimated and can become a heavy burden for our health care system in the future. “Student debts have risen more since our study respondents came of age, leaving young cohorts with more student debt than any before them. 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.”