Credit scores — those pesky three-digit numbers that dictate where you can live, what job you can get, even what cellphone plan you can purchase — are so intimately intertwined with our lives that maybe it's not the craziest idea to ask a dating partner for this number. (That's just me? Okay.)
But a credit score can say a lot more about a person than just giving a snapshot of of their financial stability. The scores can even be used to describe how healthy a person is, according to a paper publishing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers looked at a comprehensive study of more than 1,000 people in New Zealand, whose lives had been tracked from the time they were born, in the 1970s, until they were 38; the researchers found that the adults with lower (meaning, worse) credit scores also had higher "heart ages," which is a measure of cardiovascular health.
Each 100-point increase in a credit score was associated with a nearly one-year drop in heart age. (Smoking status, blood pressure and cholesterol levels went into determining a person's heart age.)
But it wasn't simply that people with higher credit scores earned more money and were therefore healthier. The connection between heart health and credit scores came independently of income — and because the study was done in a country with universal health care, health emergencies weren't responsible for wrecking people's credit scores. Rather, credit scores provided a rough psychological snapshot, said one of the paper's authors, Salomon Israel of Duke University.
The people in the New Zealand study had been measured as children for personality traits, such as self-control, socioeconomic background and IQs. "Educational attainment" was taken into account when they were adults. Israel said credit scores capture the traits that influence how a person deals with money.
"The same kind of behaviors used to manage your finances are also useful for managing your health," he said. "Pushing back that second dessert or not making that purchase when our budget might not be able to afford it have roots in the same personality factors."
Self-control and showing the ability to delay gratification as a child actually had the single-biggest effect; kids with the strongest self-control grew up to have credit scores at least 100 points higher and heart ages four years younger than the adults who had the poorest self-control as children.
Israel said his team's findings open up "important ethical and social and legal questions: What are companies really getting at when they get your credit score?"
Of course, there are caveats; medical bankruptcy exists in the United States, and your credit score can be severely damaged by identity theft. The way the score is determined can be a mysterious algorithm, and it's not always an accurate depiction of your life's story.
Still, the use of credit scores has increased in recent years, and in developing countries where they aren't as reliable or just aren't available, personality tests are being utilized by lenders and the like, said Israel.