On a recent family road trip, I got to spend a few days with my brother and sister-in-law in Albuquerque. They entertained us with delicious meals prepared from their lush desert garden. They took us out to see all their favorite local spots. My brother regaled us with stories from his long and interesting career. He engaged us in thought-provoking discussions about conflicts and politics around the world.
At 71, my brother is 24 years older than me, yet he can run circles around me. Literally - he’s a marathon runner. Really, there is nothing about my brother that makes you think of him as “elderly.”
Isn’t that what we all hope for? We spend our lives working and saving, trying to make the best decisions about our money so we can live the life we want when we retire. We hope all that saving and investing isn’t just for paying medical bills in our twilight years.
But hoping won’t get us there.
My brother didn’t change at retirement. This is who he has always been. He’s always worked hard and played hard and invested in relationships that matter. This didn’t start at 65. In fact, I’ve looked pretty hard at my brother’s life and how his habits have shaped what appears to be a dream retirement. He embodies several characteristics associated with a long, healthy life.
Goals. He always has a goal. His goal for his 70th birthday was to run the Pikes Peak Marathon. It wasn’t easy. In fact it sounds kind of miserable, but he set the goal and finished second in his age group.
We know from research published in Psychological Science that having a purpose increases longevity. “Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose,” says researcher Patrick Hill, who co-authored the study.
Conscientiousness. If something needs doing, my brother does it, and he does it right. His garden is a beautiful example of this. This garden, in the middle of the New Mexican desert, would be the envy of any California farmer. He dug the garden to 18 inches and filled it with fertile soil. He engineered a drip irrigation system that rations water to each plant in measured portions. He built a beautiful stockade fence around it to keep the local wildlife away from the lush produce. It didn’t keep my children out though, and they spent a good part of our visit eating fat blackberries straight from the vine.
This is the characteristic that made him a decorated pilot in the US Air Force. It’s the same characteristic that made him an excellent choice to work on the security of nuclear and biological materials in the former Soviet Union. He didn’t just hit retirement and suddenly become conscientious.
Conscientiousness may just be the fountain of youth. Researchers Howard Friedman, PhD and Leslie Martin, PhD found that conscientiousness was the characteristic most associated with longevity. In their book, The Longevity Project, they state “the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person, like a scientist-professor — somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree,” are most associated with a long life.
Relationships. My brother and his wife have always enjoyed spending time together during their 40 years of marriage. They often visit with their children and grandchildren both near and far. They have many close friends they have maintained relationships with over years and miles.
These relationships have increased their chances of survival by 50 percent. In fact, having limited social connections poses the same survival risk as smoking more than half a pack of cigarettes a day, alcoholism, or a sedentary lifestyle. It is twice as harmful as obesity.
Active Mind. After a career in national security and international relations, my brother didn’t quit thinking about these issues on his 65th birthday. He is an omnivorous reader. He enjoys thought-provoking discussions. He learns about new topics at a deep level (see garden, above). He has an attitude of wonder and finds the world around him fascinating.
This high cognitive functioning correlates with lower mortality from all causes in both middle-aged and elderly adults.
Muscle Mass. At 71, he doesn’t have plans for another marathon. But he still runs and maintains good physical condition by hiking in the nearby Sandia Mountains. He doesn’t shy away from physical labor, either. He's not a bodybuilder, but he maintains lean muscle mass. He provides much of the labor for his garden and other projects he and his wife undertake in the adobe home they designed.
Earlier this year, the American Journal of Medicine published new findings related to longevity. They show that lean muscle mass is more predictive of a long life than body mass index. Doing weight-bearing tasks into late life can extend lifespan by maintaining muscle mass.
So be sure to fund your 401(k). Invest in diversified index funds. And don't forget to rebalance. But don’t let your retirement planning end there. Look at other factors that will allow you to live a longer, healthier life, and start putting them in place now. It will sure make those retirement funds a lot more fun to spend.
Amy Rogers MD is not a practicing physician and nothing written here should be taken as medical advice from either Amy or AssetBuilder. Medical decisions should be made with care in consultation with your health care provider.