Less Smoking Trumps More Obesity

Smoking cigarette

Since the 1950s and 1960s, the number of cigarettes smoked in the United States has plummeted by one-half but the number of obese Americans has tripled.

So which megatrend has a greater impact on U.S. health and life expectancy? Remarkably, the winner is the positive effect of the decline in smoking. And the additional longevity, as fewer Americans light up, will continue to play out at least through 2040, according to new research.

“The advantages of smoking reductions are expected to outweigh the disadvantages of increases in obesity for both sexes,” according to findings by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Samuel Preston and his colleagues at UPenn’s Population Studies Center and at Emory University’s Department of Global Health.

The declining popularity of smoking has driven down deaths due to lung cancer to 18 percent of all U.S. deaths. But currently obesity is nearly running neck and neck, causing 16 percent of all deaths.

“We have a horse race going on,” said Christopher Ruhm of the University of Virginia’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, who commented on Preston’s paper at the Retirement Research Consortium’s conference in Washington earlier this month. “The winner of the horse race is that the smoking effect is going to dominate.” (The Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog, is a consortium member.)

Estimates of longevity, in this particular case, should be viewed with caution. The mortality impact isn’t easy to calculate, Ruhm and Preston said, because many conflicting things are going on at the same time. For example, although obesity is rising, cholesterol-lowering statins and blood pressure medications are reducing the risk that any individual will die from obesity. …Learn More

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In Session: Retirement Conference

Squared Away is not on vacation: I’m attending the annual Retirement Research Consortium’s conference in Washington D.C.

Follow my tweets @SquaredAwayBC to learn about some of the research findings being presented at the conference. I’ll also be writing blog posts about individual research papers in coming weeks.

Topics being discussed today at the conference include the impact of a decline in smoking on U.S. life expectancy, the personality traits that are associated with being prepared for retirement, and how Social Security policies affect your decisions about when to retire.

To receive email alerts about the week’s blog posts, click here.

There’s also Twitter @SquaredAwayBC, or “Like” us on Facebook!Learn More

Image: decisions: work or retire?

Little Thought Put Into Retirement Date

When to make the break and apply for Social Security benefits is one of the biggest financial decisions an individual will make.  But new research suggests that people may put more thought into buying a car or a mattress.

The goal of a new research study was to determine how people make this critical decision and how to possibly influence them to delay claiming – delaying is often the best thing financially for retirees, since doing so increases their monthly benefits.

But what’s striking is a basic finding of the research.  Individual decisions about the timing of an application to start up Social Security benefits depend simply on the order in which the person thinks about the benefits of his actions: those who first think about the advantages of claiming early – before they consider the advantages of claiming at a later age – prefer to claim early, and vice versa.  That’s it!

This finding, which comes out of the Columbia Business School’s Center for Decision Sciences, complements one survey that found that close to half of all people contemplate their date of retirement for no more than 12 months. …Learn More

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Discovery: Dopamine as ‘Risk Avoider’

Famously known as the brain’s “feel-good chemical,” dopamine is no longer associated only with thrilling activities: it can have the opposite effect.

Past research has linked dopamine to risk-taking – it can explain the thrill of sky-diving or venturing out on the Grand Canyon’s glass-bottom walkway.  But new research on the brain has uncovered dopamine’s role in the tendency of people to avoid risks.  The new findings, by Harvard Medical School researcher Michael Treadway and colleagues at Vanderbilt University, have implications for all types of human behavior – including whether we’re willing to take financial risks.

Different people exhibit “different appetites for a certain amount of risk and how they experience risk and how gun shy they are,” Treadway said.  This may depend on where the effects of dopamine take place in the brain.

That’s a dopamine molecule.  We typically talk about financial behavior and psychology or use terms like motivation and decision making.  The truth may be hard to grasp, but it all comes down to gooey chemical interactions in our gray matter. … Learn More

Businessman amongst a crowd

How Can Debt Enhance Self-Esteem?

The media went crazy last month over research determining that debt – whether college loans or credit cards – is a major source of self-esteem for young adults.

Judging by the tone of these articles, the reporters were so flabbergasted that they didn’t think to ask the logical follow-up question: Why? Credit cards aren’t inherently bad, though they can get people who abuse them in trouble. But equating self-esteem with debt seems to turn the notion of financial judgment on its head.

So Squared Away consulted therapist Dave Jetson and financial planner Rick Kahler, both of Rapids City, South Dakota. They often work together with clients on their financial issues but offered different explanations for this puzzling phenomenon.

Because debt is increasingly required to get a college education, Kahler said it may benefit from the glow of what an education represents. Debt has become a mark of being “smart enough to get through college.”

Jetson sees a dramatic cultural shift that is influencing today’s young adults. This shift coincides with shrinking economic opportunity for many college graduates. …
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Chart: U.S. Credit Card Balances

Credit Card Act Increased Payoffs

Government policies often seek to alter human behavior: a 2009 tax credit for first-time homebuyers, for example, encouraged more people to buy houses.

Now research has determined that the first federal update since 1968 to the interest rate disclosures on credit card statements has changed card users’ behavior for the better.

The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD) increased the number of users who pay off their bills each month, from about 60 percent prior to the act, to between 64 and 69 percent currently, concluded Cornell University doctoral student Lauren Jones, Ohio State University professor Cäezilia Loibl, and Cornell professor Sharon Tennyson.

They also found that the size of card holders’ payments, relative to their debt levels, increased, and that fewer card users are paying only the minimum. Their findings, though somewhat mixed, provide support for the increasingly popular notion that more precision and clarity in financial-product disclosures can be effective.

Their research controlled for the effects of the Great Recession and its aftermath, when consumers slashed their debt; in other words, card holders improved their behavior on top of the belt tightening forced upon them by lower wages, unemployment and other recessionary impacts. A previous report also suggested that other provisions of the CARD Act that made it more difficult for college students to obtain credit cards have curbed card use on campus.

However, Jones cautioned against being complacent about CARD’s impacts, because they are “positive and significant” only for a subset of credit card users. …
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money in a tin

Public Perplexed About Annuities

Sales of annuities are slow, because most retirees simply don’t know how to assess their value, new research concludes.

Many of the nation’s top retirement experts agree that annuities are the best solution for retirees struggling with the best way to invest and spend a lifetime of savings.

Annuities have a singular benefit: they guarantee monthly income, no matter how long the retiree lives – something a savings account can’t always do. This constant, pre-determined stream of income has the added advantage of preventing financial mistakes as the elderly lose cognitive capacity, according to Harvard economist David Laibson. Smart Money magazine has dubbed annuities “dementia insurance.”

Yet sales of fixed and variable annuities have been largely flat over the past decade. This “annuity puzzle” has befuddled the academy for years.

Research by the Financial Literacy Center, a joint effort by George Washington University, the Wharton School, and the Rand Corporation, concluded that most people avoid annuities – they “stick to the status quo” – because they don’t understand how they work.

“How can they make these decisions if they don’t understand what a good decision is?” said a Rand senior economist and one of the paper’s co-authors, Arie Kapteyn. “We have to do something about the fact that people have to make these decisions” about managing their retirement wealth. … Learn More

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