Cardiovascular risk and credit ratings – expert responds

A poor credit rating is linked to poor heart health, according to new New Zealand-based research, with factors such as education, cognitive ability and levels of self-control underlying the association.

Credit: Flickr/wajakemek
Credit: Flickr/wajakemek

The new study draws on data from the University of Otago’s long-running Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which began in 1972 and has tracked the lives of over 1,000 people from birth.

The latest results from the study, published in PNAS, identified a strong relationship between low credit scores and poor cardiovascular health.

“…[T]he link between credit scores and cardiovascular disease risk was largely explained by study members’ level of human capital: their educational attainment, cognitive ability, and self-control,” the authors write in the article.

Further analysis found about 20% of this relationship between credit scores and heart health was accounted for by the attitudes, behaviours and competencies displayed by the study members when they were younger than age 10.

“Our findings suggest that life insurance companies that acquire an applicant’s credit score are also indirectly acquiring information about that applicant’s educational attainment, intelligence and personality, right back to childhood,” said Salomon Israel of Duke University, a co-author of the study, in a media release.

The Science Media Centre collected the following expert commentary.

Prof Thomas Lumley, Professor of Biostatistics, University of Auckland, comments:

“This paper shows that predicted risk of cardiovascular disease is correlated with credit score, that nearly half the correlation can be predicted from ‘human capital’ variables, and that nearly half of this predictable component can in turn be predicted from variables measured in childhood, and that income did not explain the correlation. None of these findings are especially surprising, but having data since birth from an unusually representative group of people makes it interesting.

“Since the people in the Dunedin Longitudinal Study are currently 38 years old, their cardiovascular disease risk is largely theoretical. For example, the five-year difference in ‘heart age’ between the highest 20% and lowest 20% in ‘human capital’ corresponds to a predicted risk difference over the next ten years of about half a percentage point in women and just under two percentage points in men. In other words, the 200 people with the highest human capital scores would be predicted to have about two more cardiovascular events between them than the 200 people with the lowest human capital scores over the next decade. The research therefore can’t say much about the usefulness of credit scores in health insurance, which was one of the questions they raised.

“The research doesn’t really provide evidence one way or the other on the public policy question of whether credit scores discriminate between people in an appropriate and socially desirable way. Those for and against wider use of credit scores would already agree that they carry persistent information about human capital, partly determined in childhood.”