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Are cholesterol drugs linked to risky financial choices?  Elon professor presents path for research

Mat Gendle, professor of psychology, explored the potential connection in a recent article published in the peer-reviewed journal Medical Hypotheses. 

Could the Great Recession, which saw financial institutions damaged or destroyed due to risky investment decisions, be tied to the contents of the medicine cabinets of investment advisors and bankers? Elon Professor Mat Gendle wants to find out.

Mat Gendle, professor of psychology

An article by Gendle, professor of psychology, was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Medical Hypotheses pointing out pathways to explore whether there's a connection between taking statins, widely prescribed medications that reduce cholesterol levels in the body, and risky financial decisions or greed. The article builds upon Gendle's earlier research about the impact of low cholesterol levels that occur naturally in the body and financial decision making, as well as hypotheses following the recession that pointed to a potential connection.

Gendle said there's a fairly large body of evidence showing that low cholesterol levels can impact cognitive function, but less research has been done to determine that relationship when cholesterol levels are lowered by statins, which includes name-brand medications like Lipitor and Zocor. That's despite the use of statins continuing to grow nationally, with close to 40 million adults using statins as of 2011. "An ongoing debate exists regarding the potential negative neurological consequences of statin therapy, and an understanding of the neurobehavioral trade-offs of aggressive cholesterol lowering is of significant importance," Gendle writes in the article that appears in the December edition of the journal

"There's a bigger conversation here as well," Gendle says. "There's increasing debate in the medical and clinical communities about whether statins are even generally effective in improving cardiovascular outcomes."

Gendle researched the impact on cholesterol levels and financial decision making in a 2015 study of healthy Elon students who were split into two groups based on their cholesterol levels. The students then completed the Iowa Gambling Task, which is a standardized way to replicate real-life financial choices and money can be won or lost. Gendle's research found that those students with lower cholesterol levels "demonstrated significant impairments in financial decision making and heightened behavioral impulsivity."

So if top-level financial executives in the period leading up to the financial crisis, given their age and demographic characteristics, were more likely to be taking cholesterol-lowering statins, did that impact the decisions they made, and perhaps contribute to riskier investments that contributed to the financial meltdown? Gendle would like to find out.

He outlines four studies that could be undertaken to help explore a potential connection, including replicating his earlier study with a population of adults older than 40, surveying individuals in the financial sector leading up to the recession to assess the level of statin use, and tracking financial decision making by current financial industry workers compared to statin use. Gendle said the scope of the research studies he outlines is likely beyond what can be done at Elon, but the purpose of the article is to help advance the discussion and perhaps pave the way for these larger studies to be undertaken elsewhere.

"That's one of the purposes of this journal — to publish data-driven hypotheses that others might explore and act upon," Gendle said.

Owen Covington,
11/17/2016 10:50 AM