Debt is becoming a major pain in the neck - and the back and head and stomach - for millions of Americans.
When people face mountains of debt, they're much more likely to report health problems, too, according to an Associated Press-AOL Health poll. And not just little stuff; we're talking ulcers, severe depression, even heart attacks.
Although most people appear to be managing their debts all right, 10 million to 16 million are "suffering terribly due to their debts, and their health is likely to be negatively impacted," says Paul J. Lavrakas, a research psychologist who analyzed the results of the survey. Those are people who reported high levels of debt stress and suffered from at least three stress-related illnesses.
That finding is supported by medical research that has linked chronic stress to a wide range of ailments. And the current tough economic times seem to be leading to increasing debt stress, 14-percent higher this year than in 2004.
Among the people reporting high debt in the poll:
- 27 percent had ulcers or digestive tract problems, compared with 8 percent of those with low levels of debt stress.
- 44 percent had migraines or other headaches, compared with 15 percent.
- 29 percent suffered severe anxiety, compared with 4 percent.
- 23 percent had severe depression, compared with 4 percent.
- 6 percent reported heart attacks, double the rate for those with low debt.
- More than half, 51 percent, had muscle tension, including pain in the lower back, compared with 31 percent.
People who reported high stress also were much more likely to have trouble concentrating and sleeping and were more prone to getting upset for no good reason.
It isn't known for certain how stress causes health problems, says Lavrakas, who helped develop an index to measure the extent to which people are stressed from debts. But the body reacts to stress with a "fight-or-flight" response, releasing adrenalin and the stress hormone cortisol. That helps you react fast in an emergency, but if the body stays in this high gear too long, those chemicals can wreak physical havoc in numerous systems - everything from a rise in blood pressure and heart rate to problems with memory, mood, digestion and the immune system.
And no, stress doesn't cause stomach ulcers - most are caused by bacteria - but stress can worsen the pain.