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Poor physical, financial health driven by same factors, study finds

July 2, 2014
Courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis
and World Science staff

Poor phys­i­cal health and fi­nan­cial health are driv­en by the same un­der­ly­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors, finds a new study from Wash­ing­ton Uni­vers­ity in St. Lou­is.

Re­search­ers La­mar Pierce and doc­tor­al can­di­date Tim­o­thy Gubler of the uni­vers­ity’s busi­ness school found that the de­ci­sion to con­trib­ute to a re­tire­ment plan pre­dicted wheth­er some­one will act to cor­rect poor phys­i­cal health in­di­ca­tors re­vealed dur­ing a health ex­amina­t­ion.

“We find that ex­ist­ing re­tire­ment con­tri­bu­tion pat­terns and fu­ture health im­prove­ments are highly cor­re­lat­ed,” the study said. “Those who save for the fu­ture by con­tri­but­ing to a 401(k) [plan] im­proved ab­nor­mal health test re­sults and poor health be­hav­iors ap­prox­i­mately 27 per­cent more than non-contributors.”

Gubler and Pierce out­line their find­ings in a pa­per that ap­peared June 30 in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence. They of­fer ev­i­dence that in­suf­fi­cient re­tire­ment funds and chron­ic health prob­lems are at least par­tially driv­en by the same “time-discounting” pref­er­ences.

The pair stud­ied use per­son­nel and health da­ta from eight in­dus­t­ri­al laun­dry loca­t­ions in mul­ti­ple states. They found an em­ploy­ee’s pre­vi­ous de­ci­sion to fore­go im­me­di­ate in­come and con­trib­ute to a 401(k) re­tire­ment plan pre­dicted wheth­er he or she would re­spond pos­i­tively to a rev­ela­t­ion of poor phys­i­cal health in an employer-sponsored health ex­am.

Em­ploy­ees were giv­en an in­i­tial health screen­ing. Nine­ty-sev­en per­cent of them had at least one ab­nor­mal blood test and 25 per­cent had at least one se­verely ab­nor­mal find­ing. They were told of the re­sults, which were sent to the work­er’s per­son­al doc­tors. Work­ers al­so were giv­en in­forma­t­ion on risky health be­hav­iors and fu­ture health risks. The re­search­ers fol­lowed the laun­dry work­ers for two years to see how they at­tempted to im­prove their health, and if those changes were tied to fi­nan­cial plan­ning.

Af­ter con­trol­ling for dif­fer­ences in in­i­tial health, de­mograph­ics and job type, the re­search­ers found that re­tire­ment sav­ings and health im­provement be­hav­iors are highly cor­re­lat­ed. Those who had pre­vi­ously cho­sen to save for the fu­ture through 401(k) con­tri­bu­tions im­proved their health sig­nif­i­cantly more than non-contributors, de­spite hav­ing few health dif­fer­ences pri­or to the pro­gram’s im­ple­menta­t­ion.


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Poor physical health and financial health are driven by the same underlying psychological factors, finds a new study from Washington University in St. Louis. Researchers Lamar Pierce and doctoral candidate Timothy Gubler of the university’s business school found that the decision to contribute to a retirement plan predicted whether someone will act to correct poor physical health indicators revealed during a health examination. “We find that existing retirement contribution patterns and future health improvements are highly correlated,” the study said. “Those who save for the future by contributing to a 401(k) [plan] improved abnormal health test results and poor health behaviors approximately 27 percent more than non-contributors.” Gubler and Pierce outline their findings in a paper that appeared June 30 in the journal Psychological Science. They offer evidence that insufficient retirement funds and chronic health problems are at least partially driven by the same “time-discounting” preferences. The pair studied use personnel and health data from eight industrial laundry locations in multiple states. They found an employee’s previous decision to forego immediate income and contribute to a 401(k) retirement plan predicted whether he or she would respond positively to a revelation of poor physical health in an employer-sponsored health exam. Employees were given an initial health screening. Ninety-seven percent of them had at least one abnormal blood test and 25 percent had at least one severely abnormal finding. They were told of the results, which were sent to the worker’s personal doctors. Workers also were given information on risky health behaviors and future health risks. The researchers followed the laundry workers for two years to see how they attempted to improve their health, and if those changes were tied to financial planning. After controlling for differences in initial health, demographics and job type, the researchers found that retirement savings and health improvement behaviors are highly correlated. Those who had previously chosen to save for the future through 401(k) contributions improved their health significantly more than non-contributors, despite having few health differences prior to the program’s implementation.