Think “taking care of your heart” and you might flash to eating salmon and doing HIIT. That’s not wrong. But there’s another factor that may be just as important: managing your financial health.
Even before Covid exploded, plenty of Americans were saddled with debt. Now about two thirds of us are financially unhealthy, meaning we’re struggling with basics like spending less than we make, paying bills on time, having sufficient savings, and dealing with debt, according to the U. S. Financial Health Pulse: 2020 Trends Report. Millions of people risk extreme financial hardship—on the verge of not being able to pay for housing, food, health care, or medications. What’s more, money stress is especially toxic for people who are Black, according to a recent finding from the Jackson Heart Study, a 20-plus-year examination of the reasons heart disease is more prevalent in African Americans.
Financial stress is right up there on the list of things that can predispose a person to heart disease, next to factors like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and uncontrolled high blood sugar, says Mario Sims, Ph.D., FAHA, the interim director and principal investigator of the Jackson Heart Study. Money issues are pernicious because they cause chronic, 24/7 anxiety. When you have financial worries, like whether you have enough money to cover your housing or whether your job will exist tomorrow or in five years, your body releases hormones and chemicals that eventually cause your arteries to tense up and narrow. The problem: There is still a lot of blood in those arteries, and now your heart has to work overtime to get it where it needs to go. (Imagine a fire hose’s worth of water attempting to get through a garden hose.)
“Your heart is trying to pump against the elevated pressure, which can cause it to strain as it’s being required to work harder,” explains Ameen Person, M.D., a cardiologist based in Atlanta. “Over months to years, it can start to weaken and not function as well.” That means heart attacks, angina, and congestive heart failure, along with kidney damage and kidney failure caused by the stress on your circulatory system. Even if your income is high, being over-obligated financially can put stress on your heart in the same way.
All of this is harmful enough for anyone trying to get through the minefield of the past few years with their solvency and sanity intact. But as the researchers in the Jackson Heart Study found, it’s especially damaging to people who are Black.
Financial stress is especially tough, since it’s systemic
Black men make 98¢ for every dollar white men make, according to a recent survey by the data company PayScale. That’s about a $1,500 disparity for a $74,500 annual salary in the same job and with the same qualifications. Over a 40-year career, accounting for average yearly wage growth, the difference is more than $100,000. And that’s if you have that kind of job security. Black men also “tend to have far less wealth and money to fall back on” should income start to dry up, explains Derek M. Griffith, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Research on Men’s Health at Vanderbilt University. Compounding all the financial facts is that, like a lot of Americans, many Black men have been socialized to equate their manhood with their ability to contribute to the household. The result: constant worry about money and what it says about you, which can put the squeeze on your heart.
Beyond dollar-for-dollar disparities, other systemic factors affect Black men, too, says Jonathan Butler, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of California San Francisco Center for the Study of Adversity and Cardiovascular Disease. Employment discrimination and higher rates of job insecurity and wealth inequality may also contribute to heart-hurting financial strain.
This leads us to depression. Money can’t buy happiness and all that, but financial insecurity—having lower economic status or income—is one of the three major causes of depression in Black men, according to research from the University of Michigan. (The other two are racism/discrimination and a lack of coping strategies or a support system to help you deal with stress.) While depression is rough on everyone’s heart, people who are Black are harder hit here again. A different, 18-year University of Michigan study found that for Black adults over 50 who have symptoms of depression, the risk of developing heart disease was nearly 30 percent higher than for white adults in the same age group who have depressive symptoms.
Managing the money and heart crisis
“Living in our society is stressful,” says Griffith. “Being a Black man in our society is particularly stressful. So if you know that just being in the body that you are in is going to be stressful, then you need to have a strategy for how to manage and how to do things to keep yourself healthy.” That strategy should have two prongs: finding ways to cope with the stress on your heart and trying to alleviate the financial pressure in any way you can.
Your heart first: Classic stress-reduction moves really are effective. Yes, meditation is great (these apps can help), but so is exercise. Even walking briskly for about 45 minutes a day has been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease by as much as 31 percent. If you have other ways to take the edge off, like cleaning up the yard, making meals, and working on your car, maximize them. The people and purpose you find at your church or other spiritual setting may undo stress, too, by helping you make sense of it or take stock of the inner resources you have to deal with it, says Griffith.
Then see what you can do to lift some of the financial worries. You don’t have to do it by yourself, says Keith C. Ferdinand, M.D., a professor of medicine at the Tulane University School of Medicine. Check out organizations such as the Free Group, a nonprofit that provides historically underserved people with free personal finance lessons, or look into popular (free) debt-reduction programs like Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball Method. Ramsey has you list what you owe from least to greatest regardless of interest rate and pay as much as possible on your smallest debt first and the minimum on the others (here’s how one guy used this method to resolve debt). Repeat until each is paid.
You also may be able to cut costs on heart medications and other prescription drugs. Ask your pharmacist how much your medication will be if you use insurance and how much it will be if you don’t. t. In some cases, paying cash is actually cheaper. Coupons from sites like GoodRx and RxSaver can save you up to 85 percent (although usually you save less). You may even be able to save on generics if you shop around—not every pharmacy charges the same amount. Several big-box stores like Target, Walmart, and Winn-Dixie have generics that cost $4 for a 30-day supply and $10 for a 90-day supply, which may be less than what you’d spend on a copay.
We’re not going to pretend that money stress is easy to erase. It doesn’t happen all at once. But today you can take one step—even if it’s a walk around the block—to keep it from taking such a toll on your heart.
This story originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Men’s Health.
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