Scott Burns: Getting ready for the longevity haul

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Some plans just don’t work out. As a 16-year-old Piper Cub pilot and wannabe astronaut, for instance, my plan was to live fast and die young. Perhaps I would come back to Earth as a heroic cinder from a failed moon mission. Whatever, there would be no need for this long-term-planning stuff.

Didn’t happen. Indeed, I turned 73 yesterday. Can you believe it? I mean, who knew?

No birthday cards, please. I’m going to live this down quietly. Having missed the many opportunities to check out while still young and promising, I’d like to share some observations on the fate most of us face: the Longevity Haul.

We’re likely to be around longer than we think. This can be financially inconvenient. Many readers in their 50s calmly assume they will depart early. A premature death makes life so much simpler. In fact, dying somewhat young is possible, but improbable.

At age 60, a typical American man can expect to live another 20.7 years. This doesn’t mean you will die, on schedule, in 20.7 years. It means that half will die before that age, half later. Women quietly prove their superiority to men by outliving us, getting the ultimate last word. So lots of us are going to be around for a long time.

More important, the broad life-expectancy tables lump all Americans together. Add a few details, and your life expectancy may shorten or lengthen considerably. According to research by Social Security actuaries, for instance, the life expectancy of a 65-year-old man who has been in the top half of all wage earners is now 5.4 years longer than the guys in the bottom half. The difference wasn’t always this big. So, which do you think is more annoying: People with more money, or people with longer lives? My prediction: Longevity is the new inequality.

Visit the Vitality Compass page on www.bluezones.com, and you can fine-tune the impact of your habits and history on your life expectancy. I was reluctant to do this because sitting for a living, as writers do, has been recognized as having about the same impact on life expectancy as being a NASCAR driver.

But the results were pretty good. In my visit, I learned that my life expectancy is 96.2 years and that my “healthy” life expectancy is 88.7 years. Either way, odds are I have many years of service left. (Warning: Life expectancy doesn’t always rise with this kind of fine-tuning. I entered data for a friend with a seriously misspent youth, and his life expectancy was 70, which is his next birthday.)

If we’re going to hang around, let’s postpone going downhill. A year ago I was ailing from a torn meniscus and a rotator cuff injury. After my knee surgery, my Humana health plan judged me to be fully recovered when I could operate a TV remote and hobble from room to room. So I decided to make myself a restoration project.

I went to the Dripping Springs YMCA and engaged a young trainer, Trevor Newton. I spend half an hour with Trevor, twice a week. The cost? Less than most of the drugs that fill our pharmaceutical industry with pride. The effort has paid off in muscle strength, improved balance and greater flexibility. If a guy who has been sitting for half a century can do this, anyone can. Physical activity is one of the really big levers on health and longevity. So, as the T-shirt says, “Just do it.”

The payoff is well beyond you or me personally. The largest single problem this country faces is health care for a population that thinks (and acts) as if health were a pill and not a personal responsibility. We can finesse the unfunded liabilities of Social Security; they’re a mere $9.2 trillion. But health care will drive our country into bankruptcy if we continue on the current path.

According to the most recent Medicare Trustees Report, the unfunded liabilities of Medicare over the next 75 years are a stunning $27.2 trillion. That number is based, in part, on the unlikely assumption that doctors are going to accept a 25 percent Medicare payment cut next month.

If we take care of ourselves, we can make a big dent in those unfunded liabilities, even as we live longer. I can’t think of a better gift for children and grandchildren.

SCOTT BURNS is a principal of Plano-based investment firm AssetBuilder Inc. His e-mail address is scott@scottburns.com.

— Universal Uclick


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