Written by William Feaster
I plan to work well into my 70’s. Why? Well, most importantly, I like what I do and have a lot more value to add to my profession. Second, I don’t yet see myself being successful in retirement. I’m not likely to enjoy keeping busy with hobbies and golf, and there’s only so much time I want to spend away from home travelling. I live in a much nicer place than most places I visit. And, as life expectancy increases for all of us, I may live into my 90’s and I don’t want to outlive my retirement funds. If I can delay drawing off of these funds to live on, and continue to contribute to them at work, I’ll have more left whenever I do retire.
How can I possibly keep working?
So that’s my plan, but can I pull it off? As we age, several things work against our plans, whatever those plans are, be it work, retirement, travel, golf, or other activities.
First, I’m going to have to maintain my brain. I need to retain my cognitive abilities, and both short and long-term memory. Second, I have to maintain my body’s various functions (not just bowels), especially movement, balance, strength, overall fitness, and vitality. Third, I need to stay as disease free as I can for as long as I can. This is often termed compressing morbidity to the end of life.
So how can we all pull this off? Work longer if we want to. Enjoy our retirement when we retire. Obviously, if we do have a chronic disease or diseases, we need to work with our medical care professionals to help us manage them well. But beyond that, we need to focus on four important areas that contribute to overall wellness.
The first focus should be on good nutrition. We need a healthy weight, a balanced diet that avoids excess carbohydrates and calories, more vegetables and seafood, and less highly saturated fat meats. I say “less” because I’m not advocating that anyone go Vegan or give up everything that they enjoy eating, but if you do indulge in a big steak or a piece of cake, do so in moderation and get back to your healthy eating as soon as you can. A healthy weight and diet will decrease your chances of developing Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and lipid disorders. These conditions are much too common and severely limit one’s disease- free years as we age.
A relatively simple second focus is getting enough sleep, though most of us don’t. The recommendation is to sleep 8 hours a night. Lack of sleep has physiological and mental impacts, far beyond feeling sleepy in the afternoon. Sleep is made up of various important components. REM sleep, the part of sleep associated with dreaming and “rapid eye movements,” leads to consolidation of memory, and enhances learning and creativity. This sleep phase generally makes up about a quarter of your sleep time. Deep sleep is restorative and enables muscle growth and repair. It often is a less duration than REM sleep and usually occurs soon after falling asleep. Unlike REM sleep, this phase is associated with lack of movement and a drop in blood pressure and heart rate. Unfortunately, deep sleep duration diminishes as we age. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule, and avoiding alcohol, caffeine, working on a computer or watching TV, and eating a heavy meal right before bed all increase your chances of getting more deep sleep. There are many other ways to optimize sleep duration and quality.
Physical activity and ability are the third key to healthy aging. Its more than lifting weights to get strong. Your body needs to be flexible and bend without injury, your movements need to be agile and coordinated to avoid falls, and you need to maintain your muscle strength and endurance, especially your core strength. Yes, I’m active, but how much activity do I need? Do you need? I work out with a trainer one hour, three days a week and am active on weekends. My trainer works with me in all these areas and the workout is very intensive. So far, that’s enough to maintain prior gains. A lot of older people can’t afford a trainer but go to the gym on a regular basis. But they don’t divide their focus on all these different areas and aren’t trained to do so. Men want to be macho and want to lift heavy weights. And often do that with poor form leading to injury. That’s probably enough stereotyping for this article. Taking appropriate classes at the gym, like aerobics, yoga, Pilates, and others is a better strategy than wandering from machine to machine.
Emotional and Mental Health
A fourth area that is often overlooked is your emotional and mental health. One of the biggest contributors to disease and shortened longevity is the stress of social isolation and depression. For a lot of people, their job is their social framework. When a person retires, many of these social connections are lost. Turning to your spouse, neighbors and friends replaces your work connections and is critical to maintaining your mental health. If any or most of those are missing from your life, you’ll need to get active in the community, social organizations, take dance lessons, or find other ways to bring people into your life.
These are the basics, the “Big Four.” There’s no way to short-cut them. There’s no magic pill that can make up for behaviors that conflict with these key areas. We all need to do these things well before you start thinking about fine-tuning our nutrition with supplements, taking anti-aging medications, and the like. These may have some value, but like every other activity, you’ve got to master the basics first. It’s kind of like playing golf. If you haven’t worked on developing a good swing, no fancy new club is going to improve your game. If you already have a good swing and play well, better equipment may shave a couple of strokes off your game. Sophisticated anti-aging strategies may add a couple of years to your life, but only if you already do all the other things well.
Forbes article: Why working past retirement age may make sense