BUSINESS
11/25/2014 10:28 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

Your Credit Rating Might Predict How Likely It Is You'll Have A Heart Attack

Peter Dazeley via Getty Images

A new study has found that your credit rating may be able to predict how likely you are to have a heart attack or stroke.

The multi-decade study, which was published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was performed by Duke University psychologists who looked at the cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes status and smoking habits of over 1,000 New Zealanders -- and then compared their findings to those people’s credit ratings.

The study found that people with lower credit scores were more likely to be at risk for cardiovascular disease. That, the study said, is because the same factors that account for better credit scores -- the researchers focused on self-control, educational attainment and cognitive abilities -- also account for better health.

“For example, being able to regulate your impulses lets you say no to that second helping of dessert as well as to buying something you can’t afford,” said Salomon Israel, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral fellow in psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

The study also found that those traits begin to develop in the first ten years of a person’s life. The researchers have been following the study participants' development since birth. "Despite the passage of nearly three decades, childhood factors were all significantly correlated with their corresponding adult measures," the study concluded.

In order to measure self-control, researchers relied on reports from study members’ teachers and parents, as well as self-reports from the members themselves, about qualities such as hyperactivity, inattention and lack of persistence. Educational attainment was defined by the level of schooling each participant had completed, while cognitive ability was measured by evaluating participants' IQs at various points throughout their lives.

Of course, the association between poor credit and poor heart health could be due to other factors, too. The study acknowledged, for example, that losing a job after getting sick could cause a person’s health to deteriorate and their credit score to drop. On the flip side, someone with more money might be both healthier and more financially stable because they can afford to pay their bills on time and access quality health care.

But the study concluded that self-restraint, educational level and cognitive ability were nonetheless more important than these other factors in explaining the link between a sound credit rating and a strong heart.

In the U.S., credit ratings are determined by a complex algorithm used by credit bureaus, which receive information about how punctually people pay their bills from places like utility companies, banks and mortgage providers. Then, the bureaus plug that information into an algorithm and come up with a three-digit number that lenders, landlords and others use to assess your financial reliability.

Having a less-than-perfect credit rating can have a host of consequences. Just a few dings on your score can mean you’ll be paying higher interest rates on mortgages, car loans and credit cards. Having a few more dings means you could be denied a job or a place to live.

But people shouldn’t be so quick to assume that a bad credit score is only because a person was impulsive, says Paul Bland, a consumer lawyer and the executive director of Public Justice, a public interest law firm that brings litigation against corporations on behalf of consumers.

“In the U.S., there are so many mistakes on credit reports that it seems dubious to make a strong association between these personality traits and your credit reports,” Bland told The Huffington Post.

Mistakes on credit reports affect millions of Americans: One out of every five people with a credit report on file had an error on their report, the Federal Trade Commission found in 2013.

Bland pointed out that even if a person is scrupulous and has a history of always paying bills on time, something like medical debt could still quickly ruin their credit. Because unexpected illnesses or accidents don’t discriminate in who they afflict, research has shown that unpaid medical debt is an imperfect predictor of creditworthiness. Partly as a result of such research, major credit score provider FICO said in August that it would start giving less weight to unpaid medical bills in determining credit ratings when that is the only negative in a person’s credit history.

So what does this all mean? For those who make indulgent purchases even when your paycheck doesn’t allow it, it can't hurt to get your blood pressure and cholesterol checked. But at the same time, just because you have a few dents on your credit report doesn’t mean you’re going to keel over the next time you have to shovel the driveway.

H/T Consumer Reports

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