Want to Improve Your Health? Save for Retirement

senior couple sitting in park
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There's a clear connection between financial and physical health. Those with the resources get the care, advice and information they need. Those without wind up at emergency rooms and lack the professional support to understand and live healthier lifestyles. And, clearly, if you save for retirement, you'll have more resources available when your health declines with age.

But there may be a more direct connection. According to researchers at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, retirement planning can predict likelihood of improving health. Lamar Pierce, an associate professor of strategy, and doctoral candidate Timothy Gubler analyzed data eight industrial laundry plants in multiple states. The information included whether employees contributed to their 401(k) plans and how they reacted to potentially adverse health news.

Saving for retirement and addressing health issues went hand in hand.

Employees had initial health screenings. They and their personal physicians received the results. According to the study, 97 percent of the employees had at least one abnormal blood test. A quarter had a "severely abnormal" finding. Employees received information on "risky health behaviors and anticipated future health risks." The researchers -- who controlled for such factors as demographics, job types and initial health -- studied the workers for two years for signs of attempts at improving their health and for any changes to financial planning habits.

It turned out that saving for retirement and addressing health issues went hand in hand. Those who put money into their 401(k)s improved on tests for such health risk indicators as blood glucose and cholesterol 27 percent more than non-contributors. Other factors that you might expect to make a difference -- conscientiousness, financial need, life expectancy or whether workers took professional advice -- didn't.

The researchers concluded underlying psychological factors linked both retirement planning and improving health outlooks. At issue is the idea of time discounting, in which people choose a smaller reward today rather than wait for something bigger further down the line.

That said, as the study of statistics points out, correlation and causation are not the same thing. Suddenly putting money into retirement savings doesn't mean that you'll actually listen when the doctor says eat less and exercise more. Then again, it can't hurt, and perhaps the act of thinking ahead might change your attitude, your life expectancy, and how comfortable those extra years might be.

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