The Retirement Age Is Rising, and So Are the Health Problems of Seniors

Senior woman at her retirement party

In 1983, wishing to contain costs, Congress raised the age at which seniors could collect their full Social Security benefits. A person born in 1937 or earlier could receive full benefits at age 65; since then, the age has been inching gradually upward so that people born in 1960 or later will have to wait until they are 67.

Congress justified this change with a prediction that Americans would be living longer, so they'd collect Social Security for more years, paired with another prediction that seniors would be healthier and hence able to work longer.

However, a recent study from the University of Michigan Health Lab shows that those 1983 predictions missed the mark. People today who are reaching Social Security age are, in fact, not healthier. And life expectancy actually may have declined a bit. According to the study author, economist and demographer Robert Schoeni, Ph.D., "We found that younger cohorts are facing more burdensome health issues, even as they have to wait until an older age to retire, so they will have to do so in poorer health."

Schoeni and his team looked at the data from the Health and Retirement Study and the National Health Interview Survey, two major studies that tracked the health of many thousands of Americans over time. The data showed that the people who are reaching retirement age these days:

  • Have higher rates of problems with thinking and memory.
  • Rate their own health as "fair" or "poor" more often than their predecessors.
  • Have more problems with the daily tasks of living, such as shopping, taking medications and getting out of bed.

Studies on longevity are a mixed bag. Are we living longer? It depends — on an individual's lifestyle, socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and the work that they did. Demographers warn that these findings should be kept in mind if lawmakers attempt to raise the full-retirement age even higher. They point out that seniors who work at physically demanding jobs are less likely to be able to work into their later years — yet are the most likely to rely on Social Security for most of their retirement income.

In any case, it's certainly a good bet that the age won't be rolled back. So as we plan for our senior years, we should make retirement saving a top priority. Talk to a financial advisor early on. If your company has a retirement plan, participate.

Planning to take care of our health is just as important as financial planning. And there is overlap between the two. Experts estimate that today's retirees should expect to spend around $250,000 on healthcare costs. The healthier we stay as we age, the more of our hard-earned money we'll have to spend on other things — and enjoy it.

Research-based healthy aging resolutions

Since this is the January 2018 issue of the Caring Right at Home online newsletter, why not consider some New Year's resolutions that could help you have better health in the coming years? Research studies conducted during 2017 revealed six lifestyle choices that can make a big difference:

Lose weight. A study from the University of Edinburgh found that being overweight cuts life expectancy by two months for every extra kilogram of weight a person carries. (For metrics-challenged Americans, that's a little over two pounds ... so, close to one month less of life per one pound of extra weight.) During 2017, research studies continued to confirm that exercise and diet are the twin pillars of a weight-loss program, along with stress reduction and treating depression and sleep problems.

Senior woman working out with weights

Stay active. Maintaining a healthy weight is only the beginning when it comes to the benefits of exercise. Physical activity protects our heart, brain and bones, and lowers the risk of cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes and many other diseases. During the past year, researchers from the Mayo Clinic, Brigham Young University and the University of California, San Diego even showed that a sedentary lifestyle ages us at the cellular level! And while a high-intensity workout is great if we can do it, studies from 2017 showed that even small amounts of added activity can make a difference. For example, in October the American Cancer Society noted that walking, even a small amount, is associated with a longer life.

Quit smoking. Most people know that smoking raises the risk of heart disease and some cancers. And in 2017, University of California, Berkeley experts noted that smoking may be responsible for up to 14 percent of all cases of Alzheimer's disease. So if you've resolved to quit smoking before, make this the year you succeed! Talk to your doctor about a smoking-cessation program. Remember that most Medicare programs and many private insurance plans will pay for it — and a quick calculation will show you how much money you'll save by quitting.

Manage your health conditions. Preventing the diseases that can shorten life and cause disability is an important goal as we grow older. But, most of us will be dealing with age-related health challenges if we live long enough, and managing these chronic health conditions also is important. Have regular checkups, and follow your healthcare provider's advice if you are living with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, vision or hearing loss, or other health conditions. Medication side effects also can have negative consequences, so have your doctor regularly review all the drugs you are taking.

Exercise your mind. In the University of Edinburgh study, the researchers noted that on average, each year of school adds a year to our life expectancy. You might guess that this is because of increased earning power that allows us to have better food and healthcare — but that's only part of the picture. Using our brains is tremendously protective of cognitive health. Resolve to learn a little something new every day. The research team said that people who are "open to new experiences might expect to live longer."

Spend more time with others. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned, "We are facing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation." An array of recent studies have shown that social isolation puts us at risk of early death and disability — indeed, loneliness can be as damaging to our health as smoking and obesity! We see the effect on every level: Rice University researchers even recently found that loneliness worsens the symptoms of the common cold.

Maybe you will be one of the increasing number of Americans to work beyond the traditional retirement age. The money is nice, and working can keep us mentally sharp and socially connected. Or, maybe you'll be first in line to collect that gold watch. Whatever your choice and circumstances, protecting your health will pay off.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.