debt and the brain: studies show harmful effects

Debt and the Brain: Studies Show Harmful Effects

By Michael Peterson
In May 17, 2019

“It’s such a wonderful feeling to be in debt,” said no one. Ever.

Owing someone weighs heavy. Just ask anyone who’s ever been beholden to someone! But more than just an icky feeling, there’s proof that being indebted to another can actually be bad for your health.

Indeed, eliminating debt might have much more far-reaching implications than simply boosting your bank account. Getting rid of IOUs can ease anxiety and even improve cognitive functioning.

That’s the conclusion of the Social Service Research Centre of the National University of Singapore, where researchers recently performed a study on some 200 low-income individuals. A charity surprised them by partially paying off their long-standing debts (like mortgages and utility bills) – and the outcomes of this debt relief offered some eye-opening insights.

“Debt Impairs Psychological Functioning”

To perform the analysis, the researchers gave subjects two rounds of tests for cognitive functioning. They saw average error rates of 17% before the participants learned of their financial assistance; afterwards, error rates dropped to 4%.

What’s more, generalized anxiety dropped by a whopping 25%! At the onset of the study, 78% of the participants were experiencing anxiety. After learning that some of their debts had been paid off, this fell to 53%.

Because of the significant psychological impacts they found, one of the team’s leaders even linked their findings to the cycle of poverty: “Our study shows that because debt impairs psychological functioning and decision-making, it would be extremely challenging for even the motivated and talented to escape poverty.”

Granted, the sample size is a bit small – the charity could only dole out for a limited group. But the results are still telling. And they’re not unique.

“Bad Wealth Begets Bad Health”

Just like the folks over in Singapore, Americans are stressed out! And numerous studies blame this on our financial difficulties. Surveys by both Northwestern Mutual and the American Psychological Association uncovered that money matters were leading causes of stress.

John Hancock’s aptly titled “Financial Stress Survey” noted that the strain we feel over our personal finances even impacts our work life. Almost three-fourths of survey respondents said they actively worry about their financial situation at work – of those, about a third worry about it more than once a week.
debt leads to stress

LendingClub took it a step further: “Bad wealth begets bad health.” They asked 5,000 Americans, “Is your financial health affecting your quality of life?” The poll equated Americans’ poor financial health with their poor physical health, with 38% of respondents admitting they skip preventative health measures due to cost and 59% foregoing routine check-ups. The worries of not being able to meet such financial obligations (as a simple routine doctor visit) are also to blame for the 68% of American women and 56% of American men who can’t sleep.

And skipping your annual exam can lead to complications that are exacerbated by all the debt you’re shouldering – more than the depression, anxiety, and sleeplessness that many of us encounter:

  • Headache: People with a certain genetic predisposition (which researchers estimate is about a third of the US population) are more likely to get migraines when they’re financially stressed out.
  • Ulcers: People weighed down by financial stress experience more ulcers and other digestive problems than their stress-free counterparts, at a ratio of 27% to 8%.
  • High blood pressure: People with money woes are being treated for hypertension at alarming rates – at an average of $733 per adult in the U.S. in 2010.
  • Heart attacks: People with high financial stress are taking it to heart – literally. 6% of those stressed out by their finances have reported suffering a heart episode, compared with 3% of those with low financial stress. And unfortunately, that’s just the number that were able to be reported.

Debt Makes You “Undateable”

As if all this weren’t enough stress, debtors are also harder-pressed to find suitors. A poll by revealed that 72% of Americans would be turned off from a romantic relationship because of the other’s debt, citing credit cards as the “least desirable” form of debt.

Meanwhile, a Merrill Edge survey discovered a bleak commentary on our times. More than half (56%) of Americans look for a life partner who provides financial security, compared to the 44% who are waiting for true love.

Despite this, the Merrill Edge survey also noticed something troubling. While folks seem to desire financial stability in a mate, they also admit to intentionally not talking about it. Meeting family, intimacy, travel, and politics earn spots in the conversation with the significant other, but not the “money talk.” A full 60% steer clear of talking about their debt, and 51% don’t discuss their spending habits.

And these topics can make or break a relationship, according to Kevin O’Leary of ABC’s Shark Tank and Founder of O’Leary Financial Group. “Most marriages can survive infidelity, but they can’t survive financial stress. It’s an incompatible relationship financially.”

Is your debt making you miserable or downright sick? At we’re here to help get you back on the path of financial wellness. It just takes one call or email to us to get the ball rolling, and you’ll feel better after taking that first step.

Mike is the author of “Reality Millionaire: Proven Tips to Retire Rich” and he has been published in a variety of local and national publications including Entrepreneur Magazine, Deseret Morning News, LDS Living Magazine, and Physicians Money Digest. He holds a B.S. in business administration from the University of Phoenix.

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