Once you hit 60, it’s time to take ‘carpe diem’ seriously
December 24, 2015
November 30, 2015 10:07 AM ET
While everyone knows we are living a lot longer than we did half a century ago, we are not living much healthier. By some measures, we might even be losing ground. A healthy 50-year-old male has roughly a chance in 2 of not making it to 70 without dying or incurring one of the following 14 critical illnesses:
- Life-threatening cancer
- Benign brain tumour
- Early stage malignant melanoma
- Early stage prostate cancer
- Acute myocardial infarction
- Coronary artery bypass graft
- Coronary angioplasty
- Heart valve replacement
- Aorta surgery
- Kidney failure
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Loss of independent existence
The accompanying table shows the percentage of healthy people who will experience one of these critical illnesses (or die) in each 10-year span starting at age 50. While it should come as no surprise that the risk of death or critical illness rises with age, the steepness of the rise is shocking.
The table shows, for instance, that out of 100 healthy 60-year-old men, 36 will either suffer a critical illness or die before they turn 70. After age 70, the incidence of disease or death climbs exponentially. The numbers are better for women, but ultimately no one is unscathed.
A 50-year-old man today can expect to live to about 87. For women, life expectancy is even longer. That might give the impression you have a lot of time in retirement to do the things you have always yearned to do, but life expectancy does not tell you how many healthy years of life you have remaining. What is more important as you plan your retirement is to know your disability-free life expectancy (DFLE).
While hard statistics are not kept on DFLE, it can be approximated by applying the critical illness tables. Measured from age 50, the disability-free life expectancy of a Canadian male is very close to 70, a figure that is consistent with European statistics. This comes as sobering news if you plan to retire at 65!
The U.S. statistics are equally bleak and, moreover, they are trending in the wrong direction. The U.S. National Health Interview Survey that was conducted in 1998 showed that both men and women aged 65 could expect to live at least seven of their remaining years with some disease (this survey is based on self-reporting).
The same survey was conducted again 8 years later and while total life expectancy went up, the number of healthy years actually declined for both men and women — a 65-year-old man in 2006 could expect to spend more than half his remaining time with at least one disease.
While heredity is responsible for some of the illness, it does not explain why the number of unhealthy years is increasing. Much of the unhealthy trend reflects the lifestyle decisions we make, with the main culprits being obesity and smoking, even though the latter is on the wane.
What does one do with this information? First and foremost, you should take control of your own life by making lifestyle changes. If you eat better, exercise regularly and stop smoking, it will not only increase your life expectancy, it can increase your disability-free life expectancy even more.
The second action to consider is to re-evaluate your retirement plans on the basis of your disability-free life expectancy rather than your total life expectancy. Based on your DFLE, you might decide to retire sooner, spend more money in your 60s and reconfigure how you spend your time while you still have your health. The words carpe diem apply at any age, but never more so than when you turn 60.