People in debt feel literal pain, poll says

Survey ties health to financial woes

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jeannine Aversa
Associated Press / June 10, 2008

WASHINGTON - The stress from deepening debt is becoming a major pain in the neck - and the back and the head and the stomach - for millions of Americans.

When people are dealing with 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; this means ulcers, severe depression, even heart attacks.

Take Edward Driscoll, 38, of Braintree. He blames debt - $10,000 worth - for contributing to his ulcers and the panic attacks of his wife, Kimberly. "Just worrying, worrying, worrying, you know, where the next payment of this is going to come from," he says.

Although most people appear to be managing their debts all right, perhaps 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 and AP consultant who analyzed the results of the survey. Those are people who reported high levels of debt stress and had at least three stress-related illnesses, he said.

That finding is supported by medical research that has linked chronic stress to a wide range of ailments. And tough economic times and rising costs of living seem to be leading to increasing debt stress, 14 percent higher this year than in 2004, according to an index tied to the AP-AOL survey.

Among the people reporting high debt stress in the new 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 had 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 stress

  • More than half, 51 percent, had muscle tension, including pain in the lower back. That compared with 31 percent of those with low levels of debt stress.

    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.

    When their construction business went under four years ago, Pamela Crouch, 61, and her husband, who had retired from General Motors, found themselves struggling under IOUs totaling $30,000.

    "We just kind of felt desperate. We just really didn't have enough to live on to pay what we had to pay," recalled Crouch of Eaton, Ind. She remembers having trouble sleeping and concentrating. "We ended up paying a lot of our bills just on the credit card," said Crouch, a medical assistant in a nursing home. "We were stressed and depressed. . . . It was really rough."

    Their son, a manager of a construction supply company, helped them out with their debt problems. "Things are doing much better," she says. "It made a world of difference in how we feel."

    Medical research suggests that most of the symptoms reported in this poll are typical of chronic stress. The body reacts with a "fight-or-flight" response, releasing adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol.

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