May 3 (UPI) — Adults who failed to pay down student debt, or took on new educational debt, are at higher risk for heart-related illness later in life than those who do not take on debt, a study published Tuesday found.
However, those who repaid their student loans had better or the same heart health risk as adults who never had student debt, data published Tuesday by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed.
The findings suggest that relieving the burden of student debt among adults nationally could improve population health, the researchers said.
“As the cost of college has increased, students and their families have taken on more debt to get to and stay in college,” Adam M. Lippert, co-author of the study, said in a press release.
“Consequently, student debt is a massive financial burden to so many in the United States, and yet we know little about the potential long-term health consequences of this debt,” said Lippert, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado in Denver.
The findings are based on an analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a long-term health assessment of nearly 21,000 people who were first interviewed in grades 7 to 12, during the 1994-1995 school year, and tracked through age 44 years.
Lippert and his colleagues assessed biological measures of heart health for more than 4,000 qualifying participants using the 30-year Framingham cardiovascular disease risk score, they said.
The risk score takes into account sex, age, blood pressure, smoking status, diabetes diagnosis, body weight and other factors to index to measure the likelihood of a cardiovascular illness over the next 30 years of life, they said.
Participants were also assessed for levels of C-reactive protein, a biomarker of chronic or systemic inflammation linked with the development of heart disease, according to the researchers.
By the time all of the study participants were in their 20s, 30s and 40s, more than one-third of them, or 37%, did not have student debt, while 12% had paid off their loans, the data showed.
However, 28% had taken on student debt and 24% consistently had debt over several years of their adult lives, the researchers said.
Participants who consistently had debt or took on debt had higher 30-year Framingham cardiovascular disease risk scores than those who had never been in debt and those who paid off their debt, according to the researchers.
Meanwhile, those who paid off debt had significantly lower risk scores than those never in debt, the data showed.
In addition, participants who took on new debt or were consistently in debt between young adulthood and early mid-life had higher C-reactive protein levels than those who never had debt or who paid it off, the researchers said.
Although research suggests that having a college degree provides economic and health benefits, these advantages come at a cost for borrowers who need loans to pay for their education, they said.
Some lawmakers have called for legislation that “forgives” student loans for some borrowers, as debt has been linked with higher rates of suicide among millennials.
“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 [and] it’s risen more since then,” Lippert said.
“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,” he said.