A phone call with an IRS agent back in the early ’90s illustrates about as well as anything my checkered financial history. The agent, who identified himself as Mr. Pillow, confirmed that My Lovely Wife and I were several thousand dollars in arrears and wanted to know how we planned to settle the bill. I recall the conversation like it was yesterday.
“Perhaps you could list your monthly expenses for me,” he suggested.
I ran through our bills — mortgage, electric, gas, car payment, etc. — while picturing him wearing a green eyeshade and patiently pecking away at his calculator.
“Thank you, Mr. Cox. And now can you tell me your monthly income?”
I blurted out a figure that was only slightly exaggerated. The silence on the other end of the line was noteworthy.
“Oh, I see what the problem is, Mr. Cox,” he revealed after a moment or two, and more cheerily than I thought necessary. “You don’t earn enough money.”
Four or five years passed before we were able to satisfy Mr. Pillow’s payment demands, and brief periods of fiscal solvency ensued before a failed business venture hurled us into foreclosure and bankruptcy. Those and much earlier misadventures — past-due heating bills, credit-card fiascos, bounced rent checks, urgent loan requests to my cash-starved parents — speak volumes about our tortured relationship with the almighty dollar.
I bring this up not to elicit any sympathy, but as a way to process the results of a recent study at the University of Copenhagen that suggest a perilous correlation between financial crises and premature aging.
A research team led by Rikke Lund, PhD, tested the general health of 5,500 middle-age Danes and found that, after adjusting for sex, age, education, and other factors, those who suffered through four or more years of poverty over a 22-year period were more likely to demonstrate signs of early aging. This knowledge, Lund noted, could spur preventive-health measures among the financially challenged before they reach senior status.
“With our results, we show that poor finances are a strong indicator of early aging — this knowledge can be used to prevent the problems,” she explained in a statement. “Many people do not necessarily experience any noticeably poorer physical capability until they are growing older and are therefore not aware that their bodies have begun to age prematurely. This means that there will be no focus on preventative measures until it is too late.”
Lund and her crew used various measurements — grip strength, mobility, cognitive tests, and inflammatory markers — to distinguish the prematurely aged from their healthier counterparts while also reviewing the income histories of the participants. She found a “significant difference” between the biological age of those who struggled financially and those who managed to dodge fiscal crises in their younger years.
I can certainly testify to the stress that arises when you suddenly discover you’re broke, and there’s plenty of research showing that stress triggers inflammation in the body, which can age a guy in a hurry. But if Lund’s findings are accurate, you’d think I’d be in far worse shape than I am today.
It could have something to do with the resiliency MLW and our kids exhibited during all our financial ups and downs over the years. Because we never had much money, confronting unpaid bills or the unplanned car repair just seemed part of the routine. If it stressed me out, they were always there to calm me down. Experience had taught us that we’d work it out eventually.
And I suspect it didn’t hurt that I finally landed a job that actually paid the bills. Something tells me Mr. Pillow would be proud.