Dear Mr. Dad: The ongoing financial crisis has been really hard on my family. We haven’t had a family vacation in several years, we had to get rid of one of our cars, and my husband and I always seem to be getting angry at each other or at our children. It’s pretty obvious that all the stress about money has affected us emotionally, but could it be affecting us physically too?
A: Absolutely. Stress can damage your immune system, making your more susceptible to getting sick. It increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. And it can make people abuse drugs and alcohol, which in turn does all sorts of damage to the body—not to mention the damage that’s done to others when stressed out people cause car accidents, get into fights, or shoot each other.
Stress—especially when it’s caused by financial worries—can affect us physically in a number of unexpected ways. For example, it can do long-term damage to the brain in the same way as it damages the heart. So there may be a connection between today’s stress and dementia a few decades down the road. A team of Swedish researchers found that adult women who experienced stress caused by factors such as divorce, the death of a partner, or having problems at work (many of which are money related), were as much as 20% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia up to 40 years later. The greater the number of stressful events, the higher the dementia risk.
Stress over finances can actually make you stupider. Researchers in the U.S. and England found that people who are worried about money tend to make more bad decisions—such as taking on too much debt—than those who aren’t as concerned about money. How much stupider? Worrying about money can take as many as 13 points off of your IQ.
The researchers were very careful to emphasize that the problem isn’t that people with lower IQs make less money. Instead, worrying about money makes it harder to focus on what’s important. As a result, you’re more likely to do things that make your situation worse. Fortunately, this drop in intelligence seems to be temporary. In the study, when financial burdens were eliminated, people’s intelligence rose to the same level as those who’d never had economic problems.
Money stress also affects our decisions about family size. Researcher Anand Shridharani tracked the number of men having vasectomies at a large hospital in Wisconsin from 2008 to 2012, and compared it with the state’s average income. “We found as the median income for Wisconsin declined, the rate of vasectomies annually went up,” Shridharani wrote. “The suspected reason is that having an unexpected child would increase the cost of living.”
When times get tough, a lot of people lose their jobs. Those who don’t, often have to increase the number of hours they work. And those longer work days can have an effect on everyone in the family. One recent study found that boys whose fathers worked more than 55 hours per week were more aggressive, antisocial, and delinquent than boys whose dads had shorter work weeks. Interestingly, girls weren’t affected by their father’s schedule and neither boys nor girls were affected by their mother’s hours.
Hopefully, your family’s financial situation will improve. But until then (and even afterwards), find as many activities as you can to relieve your stress. Things like exercising together and meditation can make a real difference—and they’re absolutely free.