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Debt and death — are they partners?

It is sometimes said that economics is just common sense made difficult.

Like many jokes, there’s an element of truth there. Which is why it may not seem like a brave and piercing insight say that higher financial stress and mortality – in short, debt and death – may sometimes go together.

But like much of what passes for common sense, it might be a good idea to fact-check it, ‘cuz it ain’t always true. (Think about what Columbus, say, had to do in his real-life test of the prevailing wisdom. Think about how even the evidence didn’t help poor Galileo.)

Anyhow, to evaluate common sense requires a little more than a casual glance at the charts.

So three economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta have done the in-depth, math-centric look at the data – examining 170,000 credit reports — and sure enough, they say, there is good reason to believe that higher debt and the pressure it puts on people seems to match up with accelerated rates of mortality.

The paper was just released. The researchers were Laura Argys, Andrew Friedson, and Melinda Pitts.

Stress, they argue, can make you sick. Physically, sure. But also mentally. It can send you to doctors, emergency rooms, therapists or – for that matter – your local drug pusher.

I mean, that’s common sense, right?

Now, the Fed researchers don’t put a number on it – at least, they don’t say up front how many people a bad economy has killed. But they say that if you don’t think about that, you don’t realize how much good you can do – and how much money you can save — by helping people in hard times. That is, the benefits are not just to household balance sheets or government deficits.

It’s keeping people alive and healthy, or at least, healthier.

But they take a hard look at the financial trauma of the Great Recession and concluded that yes, indeed. It was not just awful for all the obvious reasons – the loss of millions of homes and jobs, the bankruptcies and continued suffering – it was also correlated with more people dying.

And that’s not a joke.

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