Financial strain can impact far more than just a person’s mental health.
A nationally representative study from the United Kingdom has found evidence that stress over money is tied to long-term changes in key health markers, including those associated with the immune system, the nervous system, and the hormonal system.
Scientists at University College London (UCL) and Kings College in the UK say that their analysis is the first to explore how different types of chronic stress relate to markers of health in older cohorts.
The data for the study included nearly 5,000 adults over the age of 50.
Of all six common stressors examined in this cohort – including financial strain, caregiving, disability, bereavement, illness, and divorce – financial strain was associated with the riskiest health profiles in the long run.
These risk profiles were established using four biomarkers in the blood: cortisol, which is a hormone produced in response to stress, C-reactive protein (CRP) and fibrinogen, which are immune players that respond to inflammation, and insulin-growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which is linked to aging and longevity.
Participants in the study who reported being generally stressed were 61 percent more likely to belong to the high-risk category than the moderate- or low-risk categories at a four-year follow-up.
People who were stressed by finances alone, however, were nearly 60 percent more likely to show a high-risk profile four years later.
For every added stress, like divorce, that likelihood jumped by 19 percent.
These associations remained significant irrespective of genetics, socioeconomics, age, sex, or lifestyle factors.
“We found that financial stress was most detrimental to biological health, although more research is needed to establish this for certain,” says epidemiologist Odessa Hamilton from UCL.
“This may be because this form of stress can invade many aspects of our lives, leading to family conflict, social exclusion, and even hunger or homelessness.”
The results don’t necessarily mean that stress is directly causing long-term health issues, but it does suggest that stress has a significant impact on the aging body, and some forms of stress might have greater physical effects than others.
Acute stress is known to trigger a cascade of hormonal changes in the body, which increase breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate. The immune system also responds by producing more pro-inflammatory molecules.
This is why staying in an elevated state of stress can lead to chronic immune activation, which could exacerbate physical and mental sicknesses.
“When the immune and neuroendocrine systems function well together, homeostasis is maintained and health is preserved,” explains Hamilton.
“But chronic stress can disrupt this biological exchange and lead to disease.”
In the current study, financial stress, bereavement, and longstanding illness showed the greatest long-term changes in immune and neuroendocrine biomarkers. This indicates an ongoing physical effect of chronic stress.
Of course, four biomarkers are limited in what they can actually tell us about human health. In the current study, for instance, higher alcohol consumption (more than three drinks a week), was associated with a lower risk profile.
This may be due to the fact that alcohol has anti-inflammatory effects, but it doesn’t necessarily mean increasing your drinking is beneficial for human health overall.
The vast majority of participants included in the current analysis were White, which also limits what can be said of the associations, especially as ethnic groups tend to experience higher levels of stress overall.
Nevertheless, researchers at UCL conclude that “the synergistic immune and neuroendocrine response to stress represents an important target for clinical intervention. Intervening on these processes could alter the course of disease.”
The study was published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity.