Several years ago Carnegie Mellon psychologist Sheldon Cohen performed an experiment to try to predict people's susceptibility to disease. First, he asked his subjects one question about their childhood. Then he squirted a cold virus into their noses and waited a few days to see who got sick, and who didn't.
He found that significantly more people who answered "no" to his one question came down with a cold, while only a few of those who answered "yes" got sick. The question: Did your parents own their own home when you were a child?
Cohen eventually asked the question to many people over a period of time, and he went on to conclude, "The more years your parents owned their own home, the less likely you were to develop a cold."
Cohen's experiment confirmed a number of studies showing that socioeconomic status can have an enormous influence on your health. Researchers have suggested several reasons why the state of your investment portfolio affects the state of your health:
Better access to medical care. It seems obvious that wealthier people have better insurance and can afford more out-of-pocket medical expenses. But similar health disparities also exist in the United Kingdom and other countries with universal health coverage. Research shows that the ability to pay for medical care determines only a small portion of the difference in health between the rich and the poor.
Safer homes and neighborhoods. As Cohen presumed, people at the lower end of the economic ladder tend not to own their own homes. Instead, they typically rent apartments in poorer neighborhoods. These neighborhoods have more traffic, more pollution, more noise, and more crime. And all of those factors take a toll on people's health and well being.
Rich people eat healthier food. Not only can wealthy people afford to buy better food, but they tend to be better educated and more aware of the health benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as the negative effects of sugary, salty, high-fat foods. In other words, not only do they shop at Whole Foods instead of stopping by McDonald's, but when they do allow themselves to eat at a fast-food place they are more likely to order a salad than a double cheeseburger.
Low-income people suffer more from stress. Sure, rich people may have high-powered jobs and suffer the anxiety of trying to keep up with the Joneses. But they also tend to have more control over their lives and how they spend their time. In addition, Hector Myers, a professor at UCLA, found that members of ethnic and racial minorities, who tend to be lower on the economic scale, suffer stress from discrimination that affects "both the psychological and biological pathways to disease." And Cohen has shown that people who suffer the indignities of being unemployed or underemployed are four and a half times more likely than their well-employed peers to get sick when exposed to a virus.
The ability to delay gratification. The famous Stanford University "marshmallow study" found that young children who were able to resist eating a marshmallow for 15 minutes, on the promise of being rewarded with two marshmallows, later scored an average of 210 points higher on their SAT tests than kids who couldn't wait. Kids with more self-control in the marshmallow test were less likely to develop health problems, less likely to suffer from an addiction, and less likely to end up poor. A different study followed a thousand children up to age 32, and supported the finding that people who were able to exercise self-control were healthier and wealthier than their peers. They were also less likely to smoke, commit a crime, or have an unwanted pregnancy than people who were more impulsive.
But for those of us who do not have an account with Goldman Sachs, or who are more likely to grab for the marshmallow, there is still hope. Cohen has done other experiments showing that people who display positive emotions such as optimism and feelings of friendliness are less likely to become sick, regardless of their race, gender, or economic situation, and when they do get sick they have milder symptoms and get over them more quickly.
So even if our wallets are thin, we have it in our power to make an attitude adjustment and improve our health.
Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.
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- Sheldon Cohen