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, Mass. He blames debt - $10,000 worth - for contributing to his ulcers and his wife Kimberly's panic attacks. "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 suffered from at least three stress-related illnesses, he says.
That finding is supported by medical research that has linked chronic stress to a wide range of ailments.
And the current 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 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 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.
'Stressed and depressed'
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," recalls 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," says 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, recently helped them out with their debt problems. "Things are doing much better," she says. "It made a world of difference in how we feel."
It isn't known for certain whether such stress is causing health problems, says Lavrakas, who while at Ohio State University in the late 1990s helped to develop an index to measure the extent to which people are stressed from financial debts.
But medical research suggests that most of the symptoms reported in this poll are indeed typical of chronic stress. The body reacts with a "fight-or-flight" response, releasing adrenaline 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, even the immune system.
And no, stress doesn't cause stomach ulcers - most are caused by bacteria - but stress can worsen the pain.
Regardless of the health implications, Americans are taking on more debt as tough economic times - slowing economic activity, job losses, soaring energy and food prices, slumping home values and record home foreclosures - strain many people's budgets.
Revolving consumer debt, almost all from credit cards, now totals $957 billion, compared with $800 billion in 2004, according to the Federal Reserve.