For Immediate Release
April 14, 2010

KDHE Office of Communications
communications@kdheks.gov, 785-296-0461

Successful Retirement Planning Begins with Your Health

An Op-Ed Column by Jason Eberhart-Phillips, MD
Kansas State Health Officer

Everyone knows it’s a good idea to put away a little money each month to save for retirement, even in tough economic times like this.

Financial experts agree that setting aside a few dollars from your paychecks now, while you’re still working, will pay big dividends when you are retired.

But all the money in the world won’t make your retirement years golden if you haven’t got good health. Acting now to save your health may be an even better investment for a happy retirement than saving large sums of money.

Sadly, Americans who are in their 40s and 50s today are less healthy, as a group, than previous generations were when they were at comparable ages. Middle-aged Americans today report poorer health, more pain and more difficulty with everyday tasks than older Americans did at the same age, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Today’s aging Baby Boomers have more trouble with walking, climbing steps or doing other physical tasks than earlier generations did. They are also less likely to report having excellent health than their parents’ generation did at the same age.

None of this bodes well for today’s middle-aged workers who may be contemplating a long and healthy retirement when their days of paid employment are over.

Without good health, all the cash these hardworking Boomers are socking away for the retirement of their dreams may well be for naught – unless they start reducing their risks for serious chronic disease now as diligently as they are tending their financial portfolios.

So what does good pre-retirement planning for health consist of?

Clearly there is no place in a winning health portfolio for tobacco. A sensible diet rich in fruits and vegetables, together with only moderate use of alcohol – if you consume any at all – are also good bets for long-term success.

But the surest route to a long and healthy retirement for most people appears to be a physically active lifestyle in middle age.

New evidence published earlier this year shows that women who are active in midlife are much more likely to enjoy exceptional overall health when they arrive in the later chapters of life.

The new research, based on 13,535 participants in the Nurses’ Health Study, found that middle-aged women who jog, play tennis, do aerobics or simply take a walk at a moderate pace most days of the week are two to three times more likely to reach their 70th birthday as “successful survivors,” compared to their less active counterparts.

“Successful survivors” are those women who made it to 70 years of age without developing serious chronic diseases, limitations on normal daily activities or age-related cognitive impairments. Overall, only 11 percent of the participants in this study who had reached age 70 were in this group.

All Kansas women – and men too – deserve as healthy a retirement as possible. When retirement comes, we all want to spend more time enjoying our grandchildren, friends, hobbies and other interests, while spending less time shuttling from doctor to doctor.

If you’re a working person, and you are saving a share of your income for retirement, good for you! But if you haven’t also been investing your time in walking, biking, swimming, gardening or doing any of the physically active things you like to do – now is the time to start.

Even if you can’t set aside 30 or 60 minutes a day in a single block for exercise, you may be able to take numerous short breaks throughout your busy day to get moving. Make it a habit to be physically active for at least a few minutes every day, and chances are you’ll get those minutes back many times over as a healthy retiree.

Physical activity is a fun and affordable way to build your health portfolio. Nothing else you can do will go so far to ensure that you enjoy a full and satisfying retirement.

Dr. Eberhart-Phillips is the Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He can be reached at jeberhart-phillips@kdheks.gov. Previous columns are now available online at Dr. Jason’s Blog, www.kdheks.gov/blogs/dr_jasons_blogs.htm.