Aging well: what we can do to make the most of our retirement years
Dr. Sandra Timmermann
Maybe you’ve read about the “super-agers.” These are the people in their 70s and 80s who have the mental and physical capacity of those who are decades younger.1 Researchers have found that super-agers have maintained their brain tissue and brain function, as well their aerobic capacity, well beyond what their peers are experiencing. Brain imaging indicates that their brains have less cell loss than other people their age, despite similar educational attainment and IQs. They also take in higher levels of oxygen than others their age, enabling them to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and dementia.
Super-agers are the role models for all of us as we grow older. While we may not be able to attain all that they can, we can learn from them. The truth is that aging Boomers and Gen Xers are already setting a new bar when it comes to growing older. They have discovered that aging doesn’t have to be about inevitable decline. It’s about staying mentally and physically fit and maintaining function as long as possible. It’s also about staying engaged in life. And being financially fit plays a critical role, too.
Staying ahead of the aging curve: seven tips
You’ve heard the phrase “use it or lose it.” Research shows that physical exercise is a key ingredient of aging well. It staves off disease, enhances our brain function and enables us to maintain muscle capacity and flexibility. Aerobic exercise, such as walking, dancing, swimming and biking, improves cardiovascular fitness. Since one-in-four people age 65 and over fall,2 strength and balance exercises, such as Tai Chi, are really important.
There is a growing recognition that healthy eating is a key component of aging well. Retirees who eat a nutritious diet can manage high blood pressure and cholesterol, build stronger bones, reduce onset of heart disease and have better mental health. A few things to note about the aging body. Our resting metabolic rate declines with age,3 so to avoid weight gain, control portions and build in an exercise program. And drink water. As we get older, our sense of thirst diminishes and there is greater potential for dehydration. Future retirees have an opportunity to create their own healthy eating habits now, reaping the benefits well into old age.
Create new mental challenges
We are all familiar with physical fitness and how to keep our bodies in shape. Science is now onto the next frontier — brain fitness and understanding what contributes to maintaining a healthy brain. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are four key ingredients to keeping our brains healthy: diet, exercise, social activity and mental activity.4 Seeking out cognitively demanding activities — something that you haven’t done before like taking piano lessons or learning a new language — can strengthen and build new connections and cells in the brain.
Adapt to change
Once people hit age 50, they already have had years of life experience behind them and look at the world differently than younger persons. They may have lived through personal shocks, such as divorce, loss of a job, caregiving for an aging parent or economic hardship. Being able to adapt and recover — being resilient — seems to be an integral part of aging well.5 Rolling with the punches, taking things in stride, being open to new ideas and adjusting to our rapidly changing society all contribute to a healthy older age.
Social engagement — having meaningful interactions with others — is one of the key ingredients of aging well and impacts our physical and cognitive well-being. A recent headline says it all: social isolation can be as damaging to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.6 Retirees have more time to reconnect with old friends and spend more quality time with their families. Doing something new — volunteering at a nonprofit or taking classes, for example — enables them to meet new people and be exposed to new ideas. Many of these activities are virtual now, thanks to COVID-19, but it’s still essential to stay engaged, a building block to aging well.
Find your purpose
During middle age, working and raising a family consumes all of our energy. We look forward to retirement so we can sleep in, have more time to play golf and do what we want to do. But after a year or two, we may begin to wonder if that’s enough to make us happy and fulfilled. We ask ourselves what we value, what will provide meaning to our lives and what will give us a sense of purpose? Some may find it in deeper spiritual practice. Others may seek out closer relationships with their adult children or grandchildren. And there are those who have a dream they never pursued, like starting a business, getting an advanced degree or giving back to a favorite cause. Living a purposeful life is a life well-lived.
Be fit financially
Financial fitness should be a goal for all of us as we age. That’s because worrying about finances causes stress and can adversely affect health. Once we stop working, we no longer have a steady paycheck and we must depend on our assets to last a lifetime. The ups and downs of the stock market, unanticipated expenses and unexpected life events can lead to a stressful retirement unless you have a solid financial plan in place. Financial products that assure a steady stream of income and protect assets can be appropriate considerations. Working with a financial professional can also help — by leaning on their experience and professional focus, you can find the right product options for your situation and feel more confident in your overall financial plan.
1 Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, May, 2017. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthy-aging/what-does-it-take-to-be-a-super-ager.
2 Centers for Disease Control, https://www.cdc.gov/falls/index.html.
3 Harvard Health Publishing, Aging and Nutrition, https://www.health.harvard.edu/aging/nutrition-and-aging.
4 Alzheimer’s Association, Brain Fitness, https://www.alz.org/media/greatermissouri/Brain_Fitness.pdf.
5 Timmermann, Sandra, Financial Gerontology, Journal of Financial Service Professionals, September, 2020.
6 Health Resources and Services Administration, January, 2019. https://www.hrsa.gov/enews/past-issues/2019/january-17/loneliness-epidemic.