Better access to and improvements in medical care mean that you’re likely to not only live longer but be healthier as well. On average, Americans are living in good health nearly two years more compared with retirees two decades ago and have compressed the time spent in really poor health to the very end of life, says David Cutler, a Harvard University professor who analyzed health data from 90,000 Medicare recipients from 1991 to 2009.
There’s a financial payoff, as well as a quality-of-life one, to maintaining good health longer. Although your total health care costs rise the longer you live (see the graphic below), your annual outlay is far less when you’re in the pink: Average out-of-pocket spending on medical expenses is $6,000 a year for people in good health, vs. $7,416 for people in poor health, according to data from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement study. That means you can devote less of your annual budget to health care bills and more to activities that make your retirement enjoyable. And fortunately, you have a lot more control over your health and quality of life in your later years than you may think, even if you have a chronic health condition.
The Key Moves
Stick with the pack: The elderly subjects in the New England Centenarian Study are poster children for the behaviors that are associated with healthy aging. Yes, they typically don’t smoke, follow a diet that is heavy in vegetables, exercise regularly, and manage stress with aplomb. Less obvious: Nearly 90% of the centenarians live independently well into their nineties, retire later than average, often do volunteer work, and have active social lives involving daily contact with family and friends. Says Thomas Perls, director of the study: “We rarely see a lonely centenarian.”
Keep on moving: Just how much exercise do you need to add years to your life? Doing something to get your muscles working every day is critical, but it doesn’t have to be a lot—even as little as 15 minutes a day is enough to add years to your lifespan, according to Maria Corrada, an associate professor at the University of California at Irvine who is part of a study of nonagenarians that aims to identify factors that lead to a longer life. A woman who exercises 15 to 30 minutes a day has a 20% decrease in the risk of dying at a given age compared with someone who is sedentary, Corrada says.
And good news for those who have spent a lifetime watching their weight: A little more padding in your later years—up to 30 pounds for a person of average height, but no more—may be beneficial too. The extra pounds provide some protection against falls, Corrada says, helping to prevent breaks in brittle bones.
Don’t worry, be happy: Reports on aging often focus on the problems associated with longevity. Here’s an overlooked piece of good news: Retirees consistently report being happier than younger folks. Happiness, researchers have found, tends to be U-shaped: People start adulthood feeling pretty good about themselves, but then the glow diminishes steadily as the stresses of life pile on, according to a study published by the National Academy of Sciences. At age 50, though, the trend reverses, and people report feeling better as they age; by 85, they are even more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18.
Smart money management helps you further stack the deck in your favor; a recent Merrill Lynch study found that financial security was second only to good health among factors that make retirees happy. After all, if you make it to 100, you’ve more than earned the right not to worry about money.