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Why Income Volatility Is a Public Health Issue

Is income volatility a public health issue? Absolutely. While earlier studies proved that a one-time drop in income can be stressful for individuals, a new longer-term study of the connection between income instability and heart health risks makes clear that a rollercoaster income can be even more damaging.

In the study published in the journal Circulation, researchers analyzed data collected from 4,000 early-career workers over a 15-year period. The study participants ranged in age from 23 to 35 at the beginning of the research. Researchers looked at their medical history and any major health events, while also tracking income information. In this case, income volatility or fluctuating income meant a 25% or greater decrease in earnings. And when individuals experienced this dramatic drop in take-home pay, researchers noted an association with a greater risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, and even early death.

The main takeaway? Income volatility and drops during a formative 15-year early career stretch were associated with nearly a twofold risk of cardiovascular disease and early death. And that means people who have experienced major income fluctuations may need to be part of high-priority screening groups for cardiovascular disease and premature mortality. So yes, income volatility and the importance of stable earnings are very much a public health issue.

And as previous research on heart health and income has shown, low-income individuals have a higher risk for heart disease than high-income earners. Compounding the risk: smoking rates among low-income earners have also remained consistent, exacerbating their cardiovascular risks, whereas smoking has decreased among high-income groups.