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Suddenly Making Less Money May Increase Your Risk of Heart Disease—and Death

Losing your job can feel like a death sentence. New research shows the scary way that might actually be true.

by Melissa Kravitz
09 January 2019, 1:03am

Photos by Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US

A layoff isn’t just tough on your finances. A big drop in earnings, especially in early adulthood, is also associated with dire health problems. Newly published research in the medical journal Circulation found that sudden dips in income in your twenties and early thirties are associated with an increased (nearly two-fold!) risk of cardiovascular diseases and all causes of mortality.

“There are health consequences of income volatility, [even if it’s just] once in your life, and a slew of potential issues,” lead study author Tali Elfassy, an epidemiology professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said in a phone interview.

The study recorded health and income data from 1990 to 2005 for 3,937 people ages 23 to 35 in four U.S. cities. Then it tracked their health for an additional ten years to determine outcomes using medical records and death certificates. It focused on how changes in income, rather than living within a certain income bracket, affects young people. It did not determine that income volatility actually caused the health problems, merely that they were associated with each other. What’s more, because the rate of death in this age group is much lower than it is for older people, even a doubling in mortality rates still only amounts to a fraction of a percentage point or so.

An unhealthy relationship between money and heart disease

Prior research has documented a range of health effects related to financial insecurity. A 2016 study in Psychological Science found that economic insecurity as it relates to employment actually causes physical pain, for example. And household financial debt was linked to decreased mental and physical health in a 2013 study in Social Science & Medicine. “Our findings show that reporting high financial debt relative to available assets is associated with higher perceived stress and depression, worse self-reported general health, and higher diastolic blood pressure,” researchers wrote in the abstract for the study. The mental health associations, meanwhile, range from depression to mood disorders.

This new study, published today, looks specifically at income volatility rather than being in debt or consistently in a low-income bracket. It did so by calculating the percent change in inflation-adjusted income in 1990, 1992, 1995, 2000, and 2005—when participants also received physical exams. It defined high income volatility as a change of more than 52 percent and an income drop as a decrease of 25 percent or more between exam years.

“In the past, there’s been a wealth of literature focused on low income and its negative health consequences. But in those studies, income is typically assessed only once, which is problematic. Income changes, primarily with younger individuals,” Elfassy said.

The study found that participants with the highest income volatility were more likely to have more income drops too. Women and black people were more likely to experiences these events, but they affect people across all socioeconomic backgrounds. About 34 percent of Americans experienced income volatility between 2014 and 2015, according to a survey by Pew Charitable Trusts.

Minimizing the effects of income changes

“When we think of how to maintain a healthy lifestyle, we typically think about having a good diet, not smoking and being physically active. We don’t typically think about the social stressors that can have a huge influence on these health-related behaviors,’” says Elfassy. “I would hope that this study helps build awareness to how large of an impact socioeconomic status, especially income fluctuation, can have on health in general. It needs to be taken seriously.”

Taking income volatility seriously as a health issue can be an important step in preventing an increase in cardiovascular disease and early death. “I can’t say don’t let your income drop, individuals on their own can’t necessarily control it, especially because it’s unpredictable,” Elfassy says, noting that income fluctuations are common and people who experience them should know they’re not alone.

That said, you can take steps to mitigate the effects of unpredicted income drops, like always living below your means, if possible. “If you work in an industry where it's hard to find a stable income, consider trying to set your lifestyle toward the lower end of the spectrum, so you can experience additional income as a bonus, rather than experiencing the lower levels of income as losses,” Elizabeth Dunn, author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, said in an email.

“Having a stable income, even if it’s low, can lead to greater happiness, and living below your means, if possible, can help at least fake stability,” she added.

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