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Retirement: New Study Links Those Who Save For Retirement With Better Health

In new study, those who contributed to retirement accounts were also more likely to follow-up on their health.

The same psychology that causes people not to save for their retirement drives a similar behavior when it comes to failing to address health issues, according to a new study.

The study headed by Lamar Pierce, an associate professor of strategy at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, showed the decision to contribute to a 401(k) plan predicted whether someone fixed health issues when it was brought to their attention after an exam.

The findings of Pierce and Timothy Gubler, a doctoral candidate, were published in the journal Psychological Science. Entitled, “Healthy, Wealthy and Wise: Retirement Planning Predicts Employee Health Improvements,” the study says those who contributed to their retirement plan improved their abnormal health test results and poor health behaviors by 27 percent more than those who didn’t contribute to their 401(k).

“The people who improve once they learn this are already contributing to their retirement plan,” Pierce says in an exclusive interview. “The people who previously weren’t contributing to their retirement plan don’t really do anything about it. What it suggests is that there are these underlying differences in people that are highly predictive of how they’re going to behave with regard to long-term implications across different domains.”

The study emanated from an unnamed industrial laundry company based in the Midwest, Pierce says. The researchers poured through health and personnel data of 300 employees at the company’s corporate headquarters and seven plants/service centers throughout the Midwest, he says.

In essence, the study shows that the previous decision to contribute to their 401(k) plan predicted how they would respond to any health issues, Pierce says. The health screen showed that 97 percent of employees had at least one abnormal blood test and 25 percent had at least one severely abnormal finding, Pierce says. The results were sent to the employee’s doctors and relayed to them about the 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, Pierce says.

The employees studied were among a lower working class group with high incidents of diabetes and high cholesterol, Pierce says.

“A lot of these outcomes are correlational rather than causational,” Pierce says. “It’s hard to say what is ultimately driving this. People who tend to be able to use discipline to make decisions that are better for them in the long term are going to tend to do that across of lots of domains whether it’s exercising and eating right today so I live longer or whether it’s spending less today so I can have enough money in retirement.”

Health problems with a rise in obesity diabetes and money for retirement are the two of the largest social issues in the US, Pierce says. What this suggests that if you simply try and get people to improve their health or try to improve their retirement savings, it will be a lot different for some people than it will for others, Pierce says.

One of the first and most important policy implications that if you’re going to put a lot of effort into improving health and retirement savings then it makes a lot of sense about who you’re going to target those efforts toward and how are you going to target those efforts, Pierce says.

“If you believe one of the key things is to provide people with information and education to improve their health, that’s probably not going to be effective for the same class of people who aren’t already saving for retirement,” Pierce says. “What you have to think about is there are some people for whom if you give them the right information like who are good savers, they would say, “hey I just learned I have diabetes. I’m going to do something about it.’ We have a class of employees in this study, they find out they have diabetes and they’re incredibly thankful about this because they didn’t know it was a problem and then they did something about it. But for those employees even when they know something about it, they aren’t going to do anything.”

Pierce says they’re doing a follow-up study to understand the impact of company policy on worker outcome. He says they noticed early on when the company comes in and helps people learn about their health and improve it, they become better workers and more productive and more appreciative of the company.

“There are productivity gains from helping your workers get healthy,” he says.

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