At the conclusion of a conference in Washington, D.C., I started walking south from the city's Dupont Circle area. I kept walking, with luggage in hand, first past Lafayette Square, then the White House and on to the Washington Monument. I kept going, past the Jefferson Memorial, crossing over the Potomac River to Virginia, and on to Reagan National Airport, where I caught my flight home.
It was a fine day and I was a tourist — factors that made the jaunt more enjoyable. But I also was inspired by comments from Darlene Howard, a retired Georgetown University cognitive psychologist, on some of the behaviors that appear to slow age-related mental decline. The conference for journalists hosted by the National Press Foundation examined aging from the perspective of both health and money.
The financial challenge of aging well
Aging presents all sorts of challenges, of course. On the financial side, most Americans will enter retirement with only modest savings and thus face the prospect of a declining standard of living.
Stacy Canan, an assistant director focusing on older Americans at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said most retirees imperil their long-term finances by claiming Social Security benefits before reaching full retirement age (which varies from 66 to 67 for most people now in the workforce). People who don't think they will live long might be justified in doing so, but others underestimate the risk of outliving their income.
Monthly Social Security payments can be up to 75 percent higher for those who wait to claim at age 70 compared to starting as soon as possible, at 62, she said.
Canan also cautioned seniors of the need to understand various financial products and services before they buy, citing reverse mortgages as an example. Some people don't realize these are loans that must be paid back. Others aren't clear about fees or additional details. "It's actually a very complicated product," she said.
Aging in the workforce
Many seniors might want to keep working at least part time, either from financial necessity or to maintain social connections and a sense of purpose. Many will face age discrimination, said Patrick Button, who has studied the issue as an assistant professor of economics at Tulane University.
Bias against older workers can be difficult to detect, let alone prove, and many attorneys don't want to accept such cases as the payouts often are low, Button said. Older women appear to be discriminated against more than men, he added.
Many women, and some men, also imperil their finances by dropping out of the workforce to become caregivers for aging parents or a spouse, though the decision often isn't voluntary. Sixty percent of all long-term care is provided for "free" by uncompensated family members and friends, said Robert Burke, director of a long-term care institute at George Washington University.
In such cases, caregivers must give up a paycheck, forego promotions and pass up job opportunities, he noted.
Price of paid care
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Paid care options, including assisted-living centers and skilled nursing homes, can be quite expensive, ranging up to around $140,000 a year, Burke said. Medicaid pays for such services for people with meager assets. Others might be tempted to buy long term care insurance. These policies protect people from having to spend down so much of their assets that they become Medicaid-eligible.
But insurance isn't affordable for a lot of people, including those lacking much in the way of assets to protect. As a rule, Burke said the policies are mainly suitable for people with at least $500,000 or $600,000 in financial assets, excluding the equity in a home. But perhaps as few as one in 10 retiring baby boomers are at that threshold or will be, he added.
Living longer, living better
Dr. Edward Zamrini talks about the Center for Healthy Aging, located in the Banner Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City. The center has been studying longevity by observing 1,200 aging residents over the past 10 years. Mark Henle/azcentral.com
A key aging issue isn't just about living longer but living better. The goal is to "die as late as possible and as young as possible," said Dr. Luigi Ferrucci, scientific director at the National Institute of Aging.
Some of his tips for aging well are obvious — don't smoke, exercise more and manage your cholesterol, for example. Others aren't so intuitive. For example, sleeping seven to eight hours a day appears to be the sweet spot for adults, Ferrucci said. Older people who routinely get fewer than six hours, and those who sleep nine hours or more, might be hurting their health, he said.
Diet also is important. A typical American male from roughly birth to age 70 will eat around 80 tons of food. "We are what we eat," said Ferrucci, who also cited stress reduction and mental stimulation as important to aging well. "The way you approach life is going to condition the way you age," he said.
Exercise, mental engagement key
Howard, the retired Georgetown cognitive psychologist, asserted that age-related mental decline varies considerably, depending largely on what each person does about it. The old view was that all cognitive functions decline with age, and there's nothing much we can do to slow it. An emerging view is that some mental components hold up pretty well, such as basic vocabulary and the retention of what she calls "world knowledge" or basic facts learned at young ages.
Factors that appear to prevent or slow decline include social engagement, diet, computer-based brain games, bilingualism, meditation, a willingness to keep learning (a new language or hobby, for example) and having a positive attitude.
But above all, Howard cited exercise including walking — for at least three days a week, 45 minutes a day. "It should be aerobic exercise, and it doesn't have to be running a marathon," she said. "But you should be pushing to get better and do more each day."