Beat the System: A big drop in income could be as bad for your brain and your heart as it is for your wallet

It’s now official: Economic turmoil and a big drop in income aren’t just miserable to go through — they’re also likely to have lasting effects on your mental and physical health.

That’s according to two new medical studies, which found that those who suffered big drops in income — the kind generally associated with losing your job — are more likely to have problems with their heart and mental health, years or even decades later.

These findings may be especially alarming news for many millennials and members of Generation X, who have spent much of their early adulthood reeling from the effects of the Great Recession, and turbulent jobs and stock markets.

“Income volatility over a 20-year period of formative earning years was associated with worse cognitive function and brain integrity in midlife,” write researchers in a peer-reviewed paper being published in the scientific journal Neurology.

Meanwhile, “a more than 50% income drop was significantly associated with higher risk of incident cardiovascular disease, while a more than 50% income rise was significantly associated with lower risk of incident cardiovascular disease, over a 17-year follow-up,” reports a separate study published by the peer-reviewed JAMA Cardiology.

In the first study, relating to mental health, the findings were based on cognitive tests and brain scans conducted in 2010 on participants of a cohort study that began in the late 1980s. Some 3287 men and women went through cognitive tests and 716 had brain scans. The participants were all young adults, age 23 to 35, in 1990.

Income volatility was defined as at least one instance of an income drop of more than 25%. “Higher income volatility was associated with worse performance on [brain] processing speed and executive functioning,” they found. Alarmingly, the results showed up as physical deterioration in the brain. “Higher income volatility and more income drops were also associated with worse microstructural integrity of total brain and total white matter,” they added.

The main caveat is that brain scans and cognitive tests were not conducted at the start of the study, in 1990. Leslie Grasset, a professor of Epidemiology at the University of Bordeaux and the lead author of the study, concedes that it is possible slower thinkers ended up suffering more income volatility, rather than the other way around. However, she says, the results held up even when using starting education levels as a proxy for initial brain power.

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In the second study, researchers followed a cohort of nearly 9,000 people. Their incomes were compared between a first time period, 1987-1989, and a second, 1993-1995. That corresponded to the boom of the late 1980s and the slump that followed. Their health was studied up to 2016.

The result: Those who had suffered an income drop of 50% or more between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s were much more likely to suffer heart problems over the next two decades. That included strokes, fatal heart attacks and myocardial infarction.

Those who suffered big gains in income were less likely to suffer heart problems.

These are not the first studies suggesting a connection between economic volatility and poor health. Severe or prolonged periods of stress, including economic shocks and worry, have clear immediate effects. However, the latest results show that some of the damage may be permanent.

This is a public-health problem, the researchers argue. Recent decades have seen increasing numbers of economic downturns and shocks in the U.S. and other advanced western economies, economists note. The early 1990s and the early 2000s both saw painful recessions followed by sluggish jobs markets that lasted for a few years.

The global financial crisis of 2007-2008 produced the deepest recession since the 1930s, and a jobs market that took nearly a decade to recover. These have marked the young adulthood of Generation X — those born between 1965 and 1980 — and millennials — those born from 1981 to around 1996.

Global competition and the emergence of technology have been widely blamed for the turmoil, even while they have also driven overall long-term growth. Many commentators worry that the rise of “machine learning” and “artificial intelligence” could usher in a new wave of disruption, and computers take over yet more jobs.

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