Changes in wealth tied to changes in cardiovascular health

July 4, 2021

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Changes in wealth tied to changes in cardiovascular health

Huge movements in the world economy are driving people from the middle class into poverty, enriching the already rich and improving the lot of those with the technical skills necessary to drive others out of work.

All of these economic trends have effects on our mental and physical health.

Proof of this comes from a new study which examines the associations between wealth mobility and long-term cardiovascular health. The multidisciplinary study analyzed longitudinal changes in wealth and their impacts on heart health. The team's results indicate that downward wealth mobility is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events, while upward wealth changes are associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular problems. Their results are published in JAMA Cardiology.

What the researchers say: “Low wealth is a risk factor that can dynamically change over a person's life and can influence a person's cardiovascular health status,” said the lead author of the study. “So, it's a window of opportunity we have for an at-risk population. Buffering large changes in wealth should be an important focus for health policy moving ahead.”

The study used data from the RAND Health and Retirement Study (HRS). While wealth data is infrequently categorized in most studies, the HRS uniquely captures detailed information about both housing (primary residence, mortgages, home loans and more) and non-housing (vehicles, businesses, stocks, mutual funds, checking and savings accounts and more) wealth across multiple interviews.

The study examined 5,579 adults 50 years or older with no cardiovascular health concerns at baseline. Between January 1992 and December 2016, the HRS research team collected data through interviews with participants about any new diagnoses they had received in terms of their overall health. For deceased participants, next of kin were interviewed and the National Death Index was consulted for additional information.

“Income and wealth, while perhaps informally used interchangeably, actually provide different and complementary perspectives,” said the co-author. “Income reflects money received on a regular basis, while wealth is more holistic, encompassing both assets and debts. Could paying off one's debt with a large relative wealth increase be important in promoting cardiovascular health, even without changes in income?”

Altogether, an increase in wealth was associated with protection against cardiovascular diseases and a decrease in wealth was associated with cardiovascular risk.

“Decreases in wealth are associated with more stress, fewer healthy behaviors, and less leisure time, all of which are associated with poorer cardiovascular health,” said the researchers. “It is possible that the inverse is true and may help to explain our study's findings.”

“Wealth and health are so closely integrated that we can no longer consider them apart,” they concluded. “In future investigations, we need to make dedicated efforts to routinely measure wealth and consider it a key determinant of cardiovascular health.”

So, what? This study confirms a number of smaller studies which have shown that a decline in wealth (and income) lead to poor mental health—especially depression—and physical health. Diabetes, certain cancers, accident proneness, loneliness and suicide have all been traced to the same source. It’s unsurprising therefore that heart disease should be added to the list.

Interestingly a number of studies have also shown that retirement, job-loss or demotion can also lead to the same outcomes regardless of whether there has been a diminution of a person’s overall wealth.

Where this study is different is that it does not distinguish between the effect of wealth movement on men and women. Past studies have shown men to be more prone to the ill-effects of downward mobility than women.

The researchers indicate the possible link between downward mobility and stress. Societal and workplace stress have been increasing at an unsustainable rate (even pre-COVID) and stress alone has been shown to be a powerful indicator of physical and mental ill-health. The new ways of working are going to add mightily to that.

Read more on stress and illness.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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