Posted August 16, 2014

What does the financial and health information for the employees of an industrial laundry company in the midwest have to do with how much you care about your investments and your health?  It turns out, quite a lot!  In fact, you can learn a lot about a person’s health by asking about their retirement account.

An intriguing new study from the journal Psychological Science finds that people who save and plan for their future retirement are much more likely to care about their physical health and take steps towards improving it. It seems that the research has revealed conceptual parallels in the way people think about their future, and the need to make short-term sacrifices for future benefits.

In an article in the New York Times entitled “Your 401(k) Is Healthy. So Maybe You Are, Too” about the research, author Matt Richtel writes:

“It suggests that there is something very abstract and fundamental about caring for the future,” said Gretchen Chapman, an editor for the journal and a psychology professor at Rutgers University. “The sort of person who invests in retirement is the sort of person who takes care of their health.”

The results echo previous research showing that some people are more predisposed than others to invest in the future. But much of that work, Dr. Chapman said, has been in the area of addiction — why heroin addicts, say, think differently about future consequences than nonaddicts. And this paper adds another interesting twist: The results come not from a laboratory experiment but from real-world data.

The researchers gleaned the findings from a trove of financial and health information that a midsize industrial laundry company in the Midwest collected from its employees, with their consent. The data was gathered anonymously by a third party and in turn provided to researchers at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. . . .

Employees who contributed regularly to their 401(k) plan were not only more likely to take steps to improve their health but also, in aggregate, had a 27 percent improvement in their blood scores. “Noncontributors continued to suffer health declines,” the paper said. The 401(k) contributors also showed relative improvements in safety behaviors, like seatbelt use.

[Click here to read the full New York Times article, “Your 401(k) Is Healthy. So Maybe You Are, Too”.]