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A recent study published in an academic journal found a connection between credit scores and heart disease. A note tucked inside the paper mentions research that could be vital to parents.

Scientists at Duke University examined 1,000 New Zealand residents for signs that credit behavior and health were linked, and they found that each 100-point credit score increase was associated with a “heart age” that was 13 months younger. The researchers had extensive data on the subjects, who were 38 years old, and were able to learn a lot about their past. Here’s the part parents should note:

The paper also found that at least some of the link between scores and health was present in the subjects studied by age 10.

“Compared with children in the top quintile of self-control, children in the bottom quintile went on to develop heart ages that were on average four years older, and credit scores that were 103 points lower,” the study said.

Qualities like self-control are often well-established by that age, so the authors recommend early intervention — “more cost effective than later remediation” — to help kids avoid a life or heart trouble and low credit scores.

In other words, kids with poor self-control skills are more likely to have trouble with money and suffer cardiovascular disease later in life.

It makes sense…someone who has trouble delaying gratification is more likely to run up large credit card bills and eat poorly.  And it aligns with other studies published by behavioral economists linking subjects’ financial well-being with their ability to make choices that benefit an imagined future self.

Hal Hershfield, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, has pioneered the study of this “future self” concept. Most people treat their future selves as strangers, Hershfield says. To them, putting money into a retirement account feels about the same as donating to a charity. In other words, they don’t take saving personally.

“What our research has been showing is that if people think of their later selves as a different person altogether – one who they’re not at all close to – then that has deep implications,” he said. He calls this a lack of self-continuity. “Some of us think of the future self as a different person to whom we feel close, like a best friend, and others of us think of our future selves as a different person who feels distant and estranged, like a co-worker you barely know. It’s the latter case that presents a problem.”

To change that, Hershfield uses computer simulators to show people versions of themselves 20 or 30 years into the future — he calls it an “imagination age.” Consistently, they get religion about planning for the future, he says.

“If you can somehow boost their connectedness with that person in the future, they save more,” he said.

Behavioral economists like Joe Kable at the University of Pennsylvania have argued in the past that this ability to calculate future consequences — known as discounting — can be used to predict not only financial health, but also the likelihood that a person will get divorced, or do drugs, or stick to a diet.

“Those who chose the delayed reward are less likely to use drugs. They are likely to be lower weight, and make better diet choices…and have other positive health outcomes. They don’t smoke,” he said. “There is an association with school performance…even things like they are less likely to get divorced, even less likely to be under water on their mortgage.”

The good news for parents is this: Kable believes his research turns the idea of strict gratification delay on its head. It’s a person’s ability to imagine a happy, healthy future that holds the key to making good decisions today, rather than a strict ability to engage in denial.

The Duke study is silent on Kable’s notion. And to be clear, it in no way suggests that low credit scores cause bad health, though it can feel that way some time. (And if you don’t know your credit standing, you can check your scores for free every month on Credit.com.)

A child struggling with behavior problems isn’t doomed to an unhealthy heart or bank account. And it’s important to note that, as the chart shows, other factors  – like socioeconomic background — also predict a kid’s future health. But even by age 10, said Duke University researcher Salomon Israel, qualities like self-control are often well-established in a person’s personality.  The authors recommend early intervention — “more cost effective than later remediation” — to help kids avoid a life of heart trouble and low credit scores.

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