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Bad Credit Linked to Higher Heart Attack Risk

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A low credit score can’t give you a heart attack, but it might mean you’ll have one soon, a new study has found.

There’s now another reason to keep track of your credit, and it actually can be a matter of life or death. Researchers at Duke University have found a link between low credit scores and the odds that a person will suffer a heart attack or stroke. On the other hand, each 100-point credit score increase was associated with a “heart age” that was 13 months younger, researchers in a study to be published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.”

The paper — “Credit scores, cardiovascular disease risk, and human capital” — didn’t find that low credit scores cause cardiovascular disease, though some readers might feel like they have a heart attack when they look at their credit scores (you can check your scores for free every month on Credit.com). Rather, it shows people who make good financial decisions also tend to make good health decisions.

“The same skills that are related to having a good credit score are related to heart health,” said paper author Salomon Israel, a Duke Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

Solomon and a team of other researchers from King’s College London and the University of Otago in New Zealand looked at 1,000 New Zealanders and compared their credit scores to their Framingham cardiovascular risk score. The Framingham score analyzes a number of health factors, such as cholesterol and blood pressure, to assess the likelihood that a patient will suffer a cardiovascular event in the future, and assigns a “heart age” to patients. By that measure, each 100-point increase in score signaled a heart that was 13 months younger, the paper says.

The study controlled for factors like a recent economic shock or household income and found they did not explain the correlation. Instead, so-called human capital factors like self-control, cognitive ability and educational attainment seemed to explain the connection between “successful aging” and good credit scores.

“Individuals who avoid risky and impulsive decisions, who plan and manage their finances, and who generally organize their lives are more likely to achieve better job performance, safer driving, and better health,” the study says.

While the research examined New Zealanders, the results are widely applicable, Solomon argued. In fact, New Zealand was a better place to run the study because it offers universal healthcare to its citizens. In the U.S., a similar study would be muddied by the possibility that unhealthy individuals would be more likely to have low credit scores due to high medical bills.

Can Your Credit Score Predict When You’ll Die?

The research also has implications for industries that routinely asses risks of taking on new customers — such as lenders or insurance companies. The study seems to confirm the efficacy of using a credit score to predict premature death, for example, though the authors take no position on the increased use of scores by non-lenders. They do call attention to the privacy implications of increased scoring assessments.

“Our findings suggest that life insurance companies that acquire an applicant’s credit score are also indirectly acquiring information about that applicant’s educational attainment, intelligence and personality right back to childhood,” it says. “Individuals who may never consent to a personality test or an IQ test before applying for insurance are unwittingly consenting to reveal this information when granting access to credit scores.”

The paper also found that at least some of the link between scores and health was present in the subjects studied by age 10.

“Compared with children in the top quintile of self-control, children in the bottom quintile went on to develop heart ages that were on average four years older, and credit scores that were 103 points lower,” the study said.

Qualities like self-control are often well-established by that age, so the authors recommend early intervention — “more cost effective than later remediation” — to help kids avoid a life or heart trouble and low credit scores.

This new research aligns with other studies published by behavioral economists linking subjects’ financial well-being with their ability to make choices that benefit an imagined future self. In other words, if 30-year-old Betty routinely wonders what 40-year-old Betty will think of a decision like buying a car or home, she generally makes better choices.

Behavioral economists have argued in the past that this ability to calculate future consequences — known as discounting — can be used to predict not only financial health, but also the likelihood that a person will get divorced, or do drugs, or stick to a diet.

“We saw some of that in this study,” Israel said. “The same things that go into flossing, or not ordering the second helping of dessert, go into calculating the future interest (costs) on a big purchase…. People who actively manage their credit manage health issues as well.”

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