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Why our 60s are our Glory Decade
by Fred Vettese
In Greek mythology, Eos, the goddess of the dawn, fell in love with Tithonus, a mortal. Eos asked Zeus to make Tithonus immortal but neglected to specify under what conditions. Zeus maliciously granted Tithonus immortality but not eternal youth. Poor Tithonus did not die but instead lived on over countless years, growing ever frailer until he was barely more than a whisper.
Thanks to medical advances and general economic prosperity, life spans are getting longer almost everywhere. At the Living to 100 Symposium in Florida recently, longevity experts predicted that the average person born in developed countries like Canada after 2000 can expect to live to 100, a good 15 years more than current life expectancy. This sounds promising but we should not automatically assume that all our remaining years will be healthy ones.
It is only a matter of time before we succumb to stroke, heart attack, cancer, Parkinson’s, dementia or some other age-related illness. It is important to know how many quality years we have left since it affects how we decide to spend our time in retirement.
I couldn’t find any good recent data for Canada but Eurostat, the European equivalent of Statistics Canada, has compiled some interesting data on average healthy life expectancy for 25 European countries.
The average European woman who is age 50 can expect to live another 34.3 years but a startling 16.2 years of those years will be marred by disability that will moderately limit activity for an average of 10.1 years and severely limit activity in the last 6.1 years.
The story for men is similar, with the average 50-year-old European man expecting to live another 29.4 years of which 12 will be spent with moderate or severe disability. Hence a 50-year-old European can expect to live disability-free to 68 in the case of women and 67 in the case of men.
This is very close to the little Canadian data that is available (from 1997) and suggests that, while there will be many exceptions, our 60s will probably be our last really good decade of life.
So what does this mean for people who are approaching retirement now?
The guiding principle is simple: Do the things you want to do when you can do them. Don’t wait too long to take that three-month trip around the world or to finally take some golf or scuba-diving lessons. As for less active things you can do equally well in your 70s, like scrap-booking or gardening, it may make sense to put them off until you get to that age. Your 60s is your glory decade.
As for working in your 60s, you may have no choice financially but if you do have a choice and like your work, then maybe consider working part-time instead of full-time.
This sobering information comes with three pieces of good news.
First, if and when you do succumb to some moderate disability, studies show your spending will decline. Hence, you might afford to spend a little more in your 60s than you thought. It is only in the final few years of severe disability when your spending may trend upwards again (for outside caregivers).
Second, at the same time that life spans are growing, research indicates that the length of time we are disabled is shrinking which means that our disability-free life expectancy is growing faster than our total life expectancy.
As a result, if you are under 50, you can add roughly five or so years to your disability-free life expectancy which will take you well into your 70s. If you are under 35, you can add another five years on top of that so your glory decade will be your 70s.
The final piece of good news is that disability-free life expectancy is something you can improve on. Our approach to health management in our advanced years is changing. Rather than treating each age-related disease as it affects us, a game we can never win, the new emphasis is on regenerative medicine, which involves attacking the aging process itself.
Some gerontologists think we can reach a point in the not-too-distant future when 60-year-olds will enjoy another 30 years of healthy life.
Fred Vettese is chief actuary of Morneau Shepell and co-author of the book, The Real Retirement, published by Wiley & Sons Canada.