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Health and Wealth Research Summaries

February 2014

Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®
Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management
Rutgers Cooperative Extension

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Cooperative Extension nationwide. Our organization was established with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 to bring research-based knowledge from land-grant universities to American families. 2014 is also the 10th anniversary of Cooperative Extension’s Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ (SSHW) program. Conceived by Rutgers Cooperative Extension in 2004 to integrate health and personal finance education, SSHW has been replicated in over a dozen states.

The SSHW program encourages people to make positive behavior changes to simultaneously improve their health and personal finances. It focuses on small daily action steps (e.g., cutting 100 calories and saving $1 a day plus loose change) that achieve significant results over time. Most people who successfully lose weight or accumulate wealth do so through small daily personal behavior changes.

So what makes some people practice positive health and financial behaviors while others don’t? Many people, including health and financial educators and behavioral researchers, are interested in knowing the answer to this question. Findings from recent research studies provide some interesting insights:

  • A study reported in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law explored the use of financial incentives to encourage health-related behavior change in the U.S. and United Kingdom. The authors concluded that, while payments for some aspects of “medical adherence” may be promising, payments for sustained behavior change, such as smoking cessation and weight loss, have thus far shown little long-term effect.
  • An article in Medical Care Research and Review summarized findings from studies of the use of financial incentives by private employers and public programs to encourage healthy behaviors, wellness activities, and use of preventive services. Unlike the previous article, it concluded that financial incentives, even relatively small ones, can positively influence individuals’ health-related behaviors.
  • A study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine explored the effectiveness of financial incentives for smoking cessation in a work setting. The incentive group had significantly higher rates of cessation than the information only (control) group. Financial incentives significantly increased rates of smoking cessation.
  • A study reported in Health Economics examined the influence of personal traits on health and financial behaviors. It found that people who engage in risk-taking behaviors are also less likely to be in good health and less likely to buy insurance.
  • A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper explored the role of impatience (called present-bias by the researchers) in making financial decisions. In other words, when people choose immediate gratification instead of taking advantage of larger long-term payoff. Findings indicated that a gamed used to measure impatience is a strong predictor of wealth and investment in health.
  • The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study of 1,000 children from birth to age 32 and found that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and offending outcomes. Effects were found regardless of intelligence and social class.

So what do all these research findings mean? It appears that financial incentives and certain personality characteristics influence individual health and financial practices. So does education. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know until we are exposed to new information from a video, class, Web site, television show, or other people. Information raises our consciousness about the need to make a change in our lives.

Want to improve your health and/or personal finances? Visit the SSHW program website, and find find every chapter of the Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ workbook available for free downloading. Each chapter describes a behavior change strategy (there are a total of 25) and includes worksheets to “personalize” the strategies to your life. Other Web site features are monthly health and wealth messages, a blog, videos, a workplace wellness newsletter series, downloadable posters that illustrate the high cost of unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, and SSHW research summaries.