Money-related stress linked to a disturbing physical condition

It’s often said that being handed an unexpectedly large bill or invoice to pay can feel like a punch to the gut. Now, a new study finds that may hold true on more than just a metaphorical level. The only difference? That punch isn’t coming for a few decades.

Researchers from the University of Georgia report financial stress can lead to more physical pain decades down the line. More specifically, family financial stress in middle age was shown to correlate with more physical pain roughly 30 years later. 

Money worries are about as universal as it gets. It isn’t exactly fair to compare the “financial worries” of a successful CEO making six figures to a single parent living paycheck to paycheck. That being said, it is still fairly safe to guess that both individuals are ruminating over some type of financial matter on a daily basis.

Money worries are near unavoidable in life because no one has full control over the economy, stock market, etc. You can have a million-dollar investment portfolio and still lose everything through no fault of your own. 

Interestingly, that last note brings us back to the subject of pain. Study authors explain financial stress is directly associated with a “depleted sense of control.” And, guess what’s linked to feelings of no control? More physical pain later in life.

“Physical pain is considered an illness on its own with three major components: biological, psychological and social,” says first study author Kandauda A.S. Wickrama, professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “In older adults, it co-occurs with other health problems like limited physical functioning, loneliness and cardiovascular disease.”

Most people think of pain as nothing more than a neurological response to physical stimuli, but just like everything else in life, it isn’t that simple. Genetics, social factors, and stress can all influence how little or how much pain an individual feels at a given moment. That much has been known in the scientific community for some time. This research is especially noteworthy because it is one of the first to compellingly indicate stress today can even lead to pain years later.

“Dr. Wickrama and I are both interested in the context surrounding families and how that context impacts the relational, physical and mental health of the individuals in the family,” comments lead study author Catherine Walker O’Neal, an associate research scientist in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “Finances are an important component of our work because it’s such a relevant contextual stressor families face.”

Researchers used data spanning 27 full years originally collected for the Iowa Youth and Family Project to reach these conclusions. That dataset encompassed 500 husband/wife couples who had experienced financial worries in the 1980s due to a local farming crisis. Fast forward to today, and most of those individuals are now aged 65+.

An analysis of all that data revealed a clear association between money worries in the 1980s/early 1990s and physical pain 27 years later. This held even after researchers considered other potentially influential factors like other illnesses and age.

Researchers theorize that when an individual is faced with financial uncertainty or worry day in and day out, it eventually takes a big toll on their “psychological resources,” one of which is sense of control. Subsequently, this may activate regions of the brain that are more sensitive to stress. This launches “pathological, physiological and neurological processes” that can put you at greater risk of physical pain and other ailments (loneliness, heart disease) years down the line.

“In their later years, many complain about memory loss, bodily pain and lack of social connections,” Wickrama concludes. “Nearly two-thirds of adults complain of some type of bodily pain, and nearly that many complain of loneliness. That percentage is going up, and the health cost for that is going up. That is a public health concern.”

Telling someone to stop worrying about money is like telling a cat to stop chasing mice. If you’re a responsible adult in 2021, chances are money is on your mind fairly often. It’s unreasonable to tell people to just adopt a more care-free financial attitude. Still, if you find yourself in a cycle of anxiety over something money-related, try to focus on the aspects of the problem that you can control.

The full study can be found here, published in Stress & Health.