It has been recognized for years that our health can be affected by our wealth, or lack thereof. Stress is a major contributor to both mental and physical health, and financial issues are one of the biggest stressors around.
In my work as an emergency physician, I meet people who feel suicidal nearly every day. While they also cite stress caused by relationships, health problems, family members and work, financial strain is a major contributor.
Since financial stress plays such a big part in poor health, it stands to reason that improving financial planning, literacy and discipline will also improve health outcomes. In my work spreading financial literacy among doctors and other high-income professionals at The White Coat Investor, I have often observed a great burden lifted from the shoulders of my readers and listeners as they pay off debt, begin saving for the future and put a plan for financial success in place.
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Perhaps the most significant way that financial stress affects health is that it prevents a patient from seeking medical care or complying with recommended tests, treatments, and medications.
Health care is expensive, particularly for those who fall through the cracks of our fragmented health system and find themselves paying for it on their own. A typical family of four buying health insurance on the open market often finds that it will cost more than $1,000 per month in premiums, and that doesn't include deductibles, co-pays or co-insurance.
By the time all is said and done, it would not be unusual to spend $20,000 a year on health care—approximately one-third of the median American household income. Government resources, including Medicare, Medicaid and tax subsidies, often lower this cost — if you can manage to navigate the system to get them.
Without the financial resources to purchase insurance and pay for non-covered care, health is likely to suffer. Preventive care will be missed, diagnoses will be delayed and life-improving — even life-saving —treatments will be postponed or foregone completely.
In addition to the direct purchase of health care, those with more financial resources can afford to eat better, exercise more and live in healthier locales, further preventing disease and improving wellness.
Even if you can still manage to pay for care, exercise and good food, financial stress may still directly affect your health. For example, a 2013 Northwestern study showed that increased levels of debt were correlated with higher diastolic blood pressure among those between ages 24 and 32.
High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure. Surveys have also shown correlation between debt and headaches, muscle tension, back pain, digestive problems including ulcers and even heart attacks.
A 2016 paper in Psychological Science even showed that financial stress causes physical pain. It cited six studies that found that those with economic insecurity experienced far more pain and consumed a lot more pain medication.
In addition to physical health, financial stress can worsen your mental health. A 2008 AP-AOL poll showed that those with higher debt stress were more likely to have severe depression (23% versus 4%) and severe anxiety (29% versus 4%). Insomnia, difficulty concentrating and anger management issues were also common among the indebted.
To make matters worse, those with low household incomes are more likely to handle this increased stress with unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking, stress eating and a sedentary lifestyle, further exacerbating the health effects of financial stress.
If you are interested in optimizing your physical health, you would do well to pay attention to your financial health. Boosting your earnings, budgeting carefully, paying off debt, putting a solid insurance plan in place and investing wisely are all likely to reduce your stress and improve your health.
A prosperous cycle will then ensue, with improved health increasing wealth, which will in turn further improve your health.
— By James M. Dahle, MD, FACEP. Dahle is a practicing emergency physician and founder of The White Coat Investor.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.