Product Reviews

Welcome to Consumer Reports.

We’re so glad to have you as a member. You now have access to benefits that can help you choose right, be safe and stay informed.

Could your credit score predict your heart-attack risk?

A new study correlates credit scores with certain health outcomes, but the comparison is imperfect

Published: November 21, 2014 03:30 PM

Like it or not, your credit score can predict whether you'll qualify for a mortgage, an auto loan or, in some cases, even a job. Earlier this week, a new study was released claiming that it could also read the tea leaves to tell you how healthy you are. 

The odd correlation between credit scores and health status came after researchers at Duke University examined a study on a cohort of more than 1,000 people in Dunedin, New Zealand, from birth to age 38. They found that those with a low credit score had a higher risk of a heart attack or a stroke than those with higher credit scores. The results were written up in a paper, “Credit scores, cardiovascular disease risk, and human capital,” published by the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.”

Wild, wild west

Why bother doing such an analysis? Salomon Israel, a post doctoral fellow of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, and an author of the study, says that credit scores are taking on greater weight in our society, so he wanted to look at the psychological factors that may be behind them.  While examining the New Zealand study, he was taken aback to find a correlation between credit scores and the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The correlation, perhaps, isn't that surprising. The same factors that could lead to declining health, such as the stress of losing a job, could also knock down a credit score. But Israel says the results revealed something else—important personality traits connected to credit scores. People with higher scores tend to be more aware of how much money they are spending, and have more self-control. “They know when to say no to a second dessert,”  he says. 

Find out why Consumer Reports advises against buying useless credit scores.

So what should we make of this study? “People need to realize that correlation does not equal causation,” Kord Davis, author of the book "Ethics of Big Data: Balancing Risk and Innovation" says. But at the same time, we should be concerned. While Davis isn’t familiar with this particular study, he warns that data mining and the correlations and reports that are generated from it can have negative ramifications.  “There are many people collecting lots of data and you can be sure they want to figure out how to monetize it," he says. "Data mining is still the wild, wild west.”

Israel says his research was well planned. “We have to make sure we aren’t just doing fishing expeditions. We made sure we had the proper processes in place for hypothesis-driven research.”

Credit scores aren't perfect

The other problem with examining credit scores for psychological traits is that the scores are not perfect. While credit scores may be calculated differently in New Zealand, where the study was done, in the U.S., one in five consumers—about 40 million people— find errors in their credit reports, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Besides that, the exact algorithms for calculating credit scores are secret, making it hard for consumers to know how to influence the score they receive. Some consumers complain that they get dinged for confusing reasons such as making credit inquires.

If that's not enough to question the integrity of the credit score, a recent study from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau shows that credit-scoring models may not accurately judge the creditworthiness of consumers. On top of that, consumers who have been victims of identity theft may also find their credit scores damaged. 

Even more worrisome is that the Duke researchers suggest that in some cases, the personality traits that lead to poor credit scores and heart attacks are set by the time you are 10 years old. So even if you accept that the correlation is accurate, it seems that there is little you can do about it.

“The bugaboo in a study like this is extrapolating how much can be changed when a child is still young,” says Lamar Pierce, an associate professor of organization and strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s not clear how much nature versus nurture impacts personality traits.”

The Duke study certainly makes for good headlines and cocktail party chatter. But if it is ever put to practical application, that could be dangerous. Israel, the author of the study, seems to agree. “Although we find that credit scores capture personal characteristics useful for health prediction, credit scores are an imperfect measure of these characteristics,” he wrote to Consumer Reports.  “The utility of their use needs to be balanced with the potential costs of inaccurate measurement."

Nikhil Hutheesing (@Nikhil212 on Twitter)

 

There is a danger, though, to drawing such conclusions. We are living in data driven society today and there are plenty of data brokers selling lists of people who fit into different categories, such as victims of sexual abuse, people suffering from depression and other ailments. With data like this, does the risk increase that your credit score becomes a tool for say, health insurers, to decide whether to charge you a higher premium? 

 

Already, in some states, health insurance companies look at insurance scores, which are modified credit scores, to see if you make your payments on time, an indication of how financially responsible you may be. 

 

“People need to realize that correlation does not equal causation,” says Kord Davis, author of the book, Ethics of Big Data: Balancing Risk and Innovation. While Davis isn’t familiar with this particular study, he warns that data mining can be risky and that as more correlations and reports are generated, it can affect a person’s chance of getting a job, or how much they pay for insurance.  “There are many people collecting lots of data,” he says. “They want to figure out how to monetize it.  Data mining is still the wild, wild west.”

 

 Israel, though, says his research was well planned. “We have to make sure we aren’t just doing fishing expeditions,” he says. “We made sure we had the proper processes in place for hypothesis driven research.”

 

While that may be, credit scores themselves are not perfect indicators of the psychological traits revealed by the study. While credit scores may be calculated differently in New Zealand, where the study was done, in the U.S. one in five consumers—about 40 million people— found errors in their credit reports, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Besides that, the exact algorithms for calculating credit scores are secret making it hard for consumers to influence the score they receive. Some consumers complain that they get dinged for confusing reasons such as credit inquires and a recent study from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau shows that credit-scoring models may not accurately judge the creditworthiness of these consumers. Consumers who have been victims of identity theft may also find their credit scores damaged. 

 

The study also suggests that if you have a poor credit score, there may be little you can do about it. The Duke researchers report that the relationship between credit scores and heart health can be accounted for by the attitudes, behaviors and competencies displayed by those who were, in some cases,  younger than the age of 10. 

 

“The bugaboo in a study like this is extrapolating how much can be changed when a child is still young,” says Lamar Pierce, an associate professor of organization and strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s not clear how much nature versus nurture impacts personality traits.”

 

In the end, the results of this study make for good headlines and cocktail party conversation. But they aren’t credible enough for any practical application. Israel, the author of the study, seems to agree. “Although we find that credit scores capture personal characteristics useful for health prediction, credit scores are an imperfect measure of these characteristics,” he wrote to Consumer Reports.  “The utility of their use needs to be balanced with the potential costs of inaccurate measurement.”

 

There is a danger, though, to drawing such conclusions. We are living in data driven society today and there are plenty of data brokers selling lists of people who fit into different categories, such as victims of sexual abuse, people suffering from depression and other ailments. With data like this, does the risk increase that your credit score becomes a tool for say, health insurers, to decide whether to charge you a higher premium? 

 

Already, in some states, health insurance companies look at insurance scores, which are modified credit scores, to see if you make your payments on time, an indication of how financially responsible you may be. 

 

“People need to realize that correlation does not equal causation,” says Kord Davis, author of the book, Ethics of Big Data: Balancing Risk and Innovation. While Davis isn’t familiar with this particular study, he warns that data mining can be risky and that as more correlations and reports are generated, it can affect a person’s chance of getting a job, or how much they pay for insurance.  “There are many people collecting lots of data,” he says. “They want to figure out how to monetize it.  Data mining is still the wild, wild west.”

 

 Israel, though, says his research was well planned. “We have to make sure we aren’t just doing fishing expeditions,” he says. “We made sure we had the proper processes in place for hypothesis driven research.”

 

While that may be, credit scores themselves are not perfect indicators of the psychological traits revealed by the study. While credit scores may be calculated differently in New Zealand, where the study was done, in the U.S. one in five consumers—about 40 million people— found errors in their credit reports, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Besides that, the exact algorithms for calculating credit scores are secret making it hard for consumers to influence the score they receive. Some consumers complain that they get dinged for confusing reasons such as credit inquires and a recent study from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau shows that credit-scoring models may not accurately judge the creditworthiness of these consumers. Consumers who have been victims of identity theft may also find their credit scores damaged. 

 

The study also suggests that if you have a poor credit score, there may be little you can do about it. The Duke researchers report that the relationship between credit scores and heart health can be accounted for by the attitudes, behaviors and competencies displayed by those who were, in some cases,  younger than the age of 10. 

 

“The bugaboo in a study like this is extrapolating how much can be changed when a child is still young,” says Lamar Pierce, an associate professor of organization and strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s not clear how much nature versus nurture impacts personality traits.”

 

In the end, the results of this study make for good headlines and cocktail party conversation. But they aren’t credible enough for any practical application. Israel, the author of the study, seems to agree. “Although we find that credit scores capture personal characteristics useful for health prediction, credit scores are an imperfect measure of these characteristics,” he wrote to Consumer Reports.  “The utility of their use needs to be balanced with the potential costs of inaccurate measurement.”


E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Money News

Cars

Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings

Mobile

Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more