Why do some people live long, healthy, and happy lives, while others struggle with dementia, heart disease, and depression? Are there steps we can take to protect ourselves from those outcomes, or is it all a matter of luck (and good genes)? What do the latest scientific advancements say about helping us get the most out of our lifespans, and how can we afford our longer lives?
Those are the questions U.S. News sought to answer with this project, How to Live to 100. Promises of magic elixirs abound: in television ads for skin-care products, in doctor's offices, and even at the grocery store. Every day, new research seems to suggest something new: Drink red wine, skip red meat, take vitamin C, drink coffee. We sought to find out the truth about steps we can all take to increase our chances of staying healthy, happy, and affording it.
The financial side of longevity is playing an increasingly visible role as people begin to routinely live 10, 20, and even 30 years after retirement. "People have many more years to worry about and take care of, and we're living at a time when a lot of their resources have been diminished. The drop in the value of homes has probably wiped out an average of two-thirds of home equity for American homeowners. And your job might not be there as long as you had hoped," says Mort Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News.
In addition to interviewing the country's top researchers on health, longevity, happiness, and finances, we sought out people who seem to have discovered the answer to successful aging. They often echoed each other's thoughts about consciously choosing healthier diets, opting to spend more time with family over work, and finding meaning by giving back to communities and connecting with others long past retirement. As actress Betty White, perhaps the nation's most famous nonagenarian, recently put it to CNN's Piers Morgan, "Old age is all up here," gesturing to her head.
That's certainly the case for 77-year-old marathoner Ruth Heidrich, a breast cancer survivor who changed her diet and exercise habits after her diagnosis in 1982. "That's what started me on this whole road," she says, referring to her all-raw diet and extreme exercise habits, including triathlons and Iron Man competitions.
Heidrich, who lives in Honolulu, eats a large bowl of leafy greens for breakfast, mixed with a banana, a mango, and raw steel-cut oats. She sprinkles cinnamon and ginger on top, and drinks green tea mixed with a tablespoon of pure unsweetened cocoa, along with some Stevia to sweeten the drink. A typical dinner includes more leafy greens and fruit along with broccoli and salsa. For dessert and snacks, she munches on blueberries, walnuts, prunes, apples, and popcorn. "I started eating at least a cup of blueberries a day after I read that blueberries are good for the brain," she says. She doesn't drink coffee or alcohol.
Today, she no longer competes in Iron Man competitions but continues to work out for three hours daily, typically running, biking, or swimming before breakfast, and plans to continue doing so, albeit at a slower pace. "I will keep exercising forever," she says. "My energy levels are through the roof and I'm having fun. I feel like I've got to tell everybody, 'You've got to eat right and exercise right … Walking is not exercise. You've gotta sweat, you've gotta breathe hard.'"
Robert Kuhns, 69, found fulfillment in retirement through a second career: The retired IBM executive works as a forest ranger in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park during part of the year, leading hikes, giving talks on animal habits, and taking photographs for park brochures. From the end of March through the end of November, he works 40 hours a week, which includes plenty of exercise, hiking up and down trails as he shares information about native species of insects and trees with visitors. "It's one of the most rewarding things I've done in my life," he says. He plans to continue for as long as he can, perhaps another 10 years.
Kuhns earns extra cash from the gig, too. "[My wife and I] have more available funds when I'm working than during the months when I'm not," he says, and this year he got promoted to a higher pay grade.
Doreen Orion, 52, and her husband, Tim Justice, 54, decided to scale back work and hit the road in their 340 square-foot RV, so they could focus on adventure, each other, and reducing their dependence on material goods. She documented their trip in her 2008 memoir, Queen of the Road. As psychiatrists who work for insurance companies, they can do much of their work remotely. "We had a really good marriage before, but being thrust into new situations all the time and having to problem-solve, it can't help but bring you closer together," she says. Orion and her husband recently decided to put their Colorado home on the market and live in their RV full-time.
While still in her twenties, Nicole Mladic, a communications director in Chicago, realized she was never going to save enough for retirement if she continued on her current trajectory of little or no savings each month. So she started slowly by saving 2 percent of her salary each month. A few months later, she raised it to 3 percent, then 4 percent, and eventually reached her goal of 10 percent. Today, Mladic is in her early thirties and her net worth is over $100,000. "The thought of saving 10 percent of my salary for retirement each month seemed impossible when I first started working," says Mladic. "But by starting small, it was easy to get to 10 percent, and far less of a shock to my budget."
George Vaillant, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has overseen the longest-running longitudinal study of health and happiness. His study has tracked the lives of more than 500 Harvard students and men from inner-city Boston since the 1930s, and has drawn some intriguing conclusions, including that stable relationships are one key to a long and happy life. Divorce, he says, "is very bad for your health."
Vaillant says what makes him happiest now, at age 77, are his grandchildren. His advice is sometimes at odds with what one usually hears: He urges people to take money out of their retirement accounts to go on vacation, because learning how to relax and spend time with loved ones is essential to one's happiness later in life. "Just remember, if you get nothing else out of talking to me, to put some of your IRA money into vacations," he says.
As for what brings happiness to that retirement, he says it almost always comes down to relationships. "There were three things that correlated with a fun retirement: 1) whether your marriage was good, 2) whether you took fun vacations before you retired, and 3) whether you have always liked doing things for other people. So it's being more interested in others than yourself that leads to a happy retirement, and having somebody you enjoy being with. And it's having learned before you retire how to play." That's why he suggests investing in vacations long before retirement—to practice.
Love of grandchildren, he found, can trump even disease. "People in poor health with 13 grandchildren are happy … I'm 77, and what I enjoy most are my grandchildren."
The chapters that follow are designed to help you sort through the seemingly endless findings about what you can do now to increase your odds of being a healthy and happy 77-year-old, 90-year-old, and beyond. Getting your heart rate up by exercising at least 150 minutes a week, for example, can cut your chances of heart disease and cancer. Eating a Mediterranean diet, which is heavy on olive oil and fish, capping red meat at 18 ounces per week, flossing daily, sleeping at least six hours a night, and having no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women also appear to promote good health.
To boost your chances of happiness, build a long and loving marriage, cultivate gratitude and optimism, and commit to constant self-improvement. To afford your long life, start a vigorous savings plan as early as your twenties, make frugal lifestyle choices, such as living in a smaller home and cooking more meals at home, and work as long as possible, well past age 65.
Changing ingrained habits, of course, isn't easy. Sometimes it takes a major life event, such as a cancer diagnosis, as it did for Ruth Heidrich. But habits can also be changed with conscious effort. New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, found that changing a habit requires first identifying a cue, such as putting your running shoes on before breakfast, that your brain connects to going for a run. Then, he suggests rewarding yourself after the run, with a piece of chocolate or a long shower.
"There has to be some sort of reward at the end of the routine to make it a habit," he says. Exercise does contain its own reward, because people feel good after running, but he says it can take a few weeks for the brain to pick up on those internal rewards, which is why he suggests supplementing with a more obvious, external reward. "That's how the neurology learns to encode that behavior," he adds.
One worthy new habit might be earning supplemental income, even before retirement, to help fund those decades. Says Zuckerman: "Understand that there is no point in your life when you have to stop learning. Continue to read, try and learn and understand what is going in the world, and hopefully train yourself for other work."
The How to Live 100 ebook is now available. We hope it helps you on your own journey to live a long, happy, and fulfilling life.