We are living longer on average, but the number of years we are healthy has not kept pace. This lagging “healthy period” translates into more time to live with serious illness and disabilities at the end of our life.
This can have a significant impact on our pensions. Some of us will have our working lives cut short because of poor health, which will reduce the money we can save for our future. Others will face big bills for medical care and home care. Then there is the emotional burden of battling ill health rather than traveling, visiting grandchildren, and participating in all the other activities that we had planned for our golden years.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Many of the biggest risk factors for ill health are in our power to modify, prevent or control, says R. Dale Hall, executive director of the Society of Actuaries Research Institute, which provides research on risk management. But like with retirement savings, the earlier we start, the better.
Learn the 5 Health Risk Factors
The institute tasked Vitality, a company that partners with insurers and employers to promote healthier lifestyles, to conduct a study that identified five lifestyle risk factors with the greatest impact on health: smoking, obesity, high blood sugar, poor diet and high blood pressure. pressure.
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Researchers have also found ways to modify these risks, including quitting smoking, participating in physical activity, eating a healthy diet and taking prescribed medications.
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The study drew on data from the Global Burden of Disease, a resource managed by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington that tracks the prevalence of disease and risk factors around the world, as well as than the relative damage they cause. The GBD shows that the average residual life expectancy at age 65 in the United States has increased from 17.6 years in 1990 to 19.6 years in 2019, a gain of two years. Healthy life expectancy, meanwhile, increased by less than a year, from 12.2 years to 13.1 years.
This echoes similar statistics from the World Health Organization, which found that life expectancy in the United States at age 60 increased by almost 8% between 2000 and 2019, but that life expectancy of healthy life had increased by less than 5%.
Related: Older people who are obese have a higher risk of cancer
Recognize other barriers to a healthier life
GBD has certain limitations: it does not monitor the impact of well-established prevention strategies such as vaccinations and screenings, or does not take into account risk factors such as stress, depression, lack of sleep, loneliness and lack of purpose, Vitality researchers said. .
It is also important to recognize that there can be huge systemic barriers to a healthier life. If you live in an area where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited, it is more difficult to eat well. If you live in crowded housing in an unsafe neighborhood, it can be difficult to get enough exercise. If you have to choose between buying medicine and food, you’re unlikely to fill out the prescription your doctor wrote for you, assuming you can afford to see a doctor. The more money you have, the better your access to key health interventions that help people live healthy longer lives.
Even when we have enough money, our behavioral biases can get in the way, especially our tendency to prioritize current gratification over future earnings.
“Honestly, I’d rather sit on the couch and eat the bag of crisps than go for a run,” says Tanya Little, Vitality’s director of growth. “And yet the future me would thank me for going for a run now.”
Identify an area of change
Likewise, we can choose inaction over action if we’re asked to change too much, Little says. Instead, Vitality’s programs identify one change that would have the greatest impact based on each person’s health and lifestyle profile.
“This idea of an endless list is totally overwhelming and demotivating,” says Little. “Whereas if I tell you, ‘If you just did that one thing’, you’re much more likely to do it. “
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Once people move towards one goal, they’re often inspired to change others, Little says. People who exercise more often start to eat healthier, for example.
Of course, healthy habits do not make us immune to disease and disability. But taking care of our health increases the chances that we will still have many years to live.
If you would like to see what Vitality recommends for you, along with their estimate of your lifespan and health, you can visit the company’s calculator.
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Liz Weston writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @lizweston.