Want to live forever? Sweeping scientific research published in 2018 found that five specific behaviors extend life expectancy by 14 years for women and 12.2 years for men.
Unfortunately, even as Americans are living longer, they’re saving less, with the savings rate halving from 12% in 2012 to 6% in 2018 according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. And with Americans collecting less in real dollars from Social Security, it raises uncomfortable questions about whether they can actually afford to live longer.
If you like the sound of adding more years to your life, here’s what you need to know to make it happen, from both a health and financial perspective.
5 Behaviors That Extend Life Expectancy
A 2018 study by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health followed over 122,000 people for up to 34 years, focusing on how five behaviors impacted life expectancies.
What they found was both surprising and not surprising at all. As researchers expected, these five behaviors extended life expectancies, but the extent proved far greater than anticipated. Life expectancy for a 50-year-old woman who maintained all five behaviors extended another 43.1 years to a ripe old age of 93.1 on average. For men, life expectancy was another 37.6 years, or 87.6 years’ total lifespan.
But for women and men who followed none of these behaviors, life expectancy dropped by 29 years (to age 79) and 25.5 years (to age 75.5), respectively.
Among both men and women, over half of the improvement in life expectancy came from avoiding the two greatest killers in America: heart disease and cancer. For example, among men, the increase in life expectancy came from a 34.1% lower risk of heart disease and a 22.8% lower risk of cancer. The remaining 43.1% came from a reduced risk of other age-related diseases.
Below are the five behaviors, along with actions steps you can take to achieve the longevity benefits found by the Harvard team.
Behavior 1: Never Smoking
Among the adults studied, the greater their smoking frequency, the shorter their life expectancy. The “low-risk” group in the study, who saw the greatest boost in life expectancy, comprised Americans who don’t smoke at all. That doesn’t mean they had never smoked earlier in their life; many of the other respondents had, and then quit. The sooner they quit, the greater the impact on life expectancy.
In fact, among all of the behaviors studied, smoking had the most powerful effect on life expectancy.
If you do everything wrong health-wise and don’t know where to start improving, start with quitting smoking.
Even reducing your cigarette consumption has an impact on your life expectancy. While smoking 1 to 14 cigarettes a day is still linked to a higher risk of heart disease, lung disease, and of course cancer, the risk is still lower than at a higher consumption.
Health risks aside, a cigarette habit is enormously expensive. With the average price of a pack of cigarettes at $6.28 according to Smokefree.gov, a pack-a-day habit costs $2,292 every year. That’s the equivalent of a vacation, a hefty retirement contribution, or the down payment to buy a new home.
There’s a reason why no one ever says, “Man, I wish I hadn’t quit smoking.”
If you’re serious about quitting, using a stop smoking patch from Habitrol is a great first step. You could also look into a smoking cessation program.
Behavior 2: Moderate Drinking
The study found low-risk drinking habits to be one-half to a single drink each day for women and one-half to two drinks each day for men. At these consumption rates, there was no difference in life expectancy compared to teetotalers.
That’s good news if you enjoy a nice Cabernet after a long day of work. Unlike smoking, there is such a thing as healthy alcohol consumption.
But here’s the caveat: One or two drinks a day is not an average, but a daily cap. Sure, a man can imbibe two drinks per day and suffer no ill health effects or reduction in longevity, but that doesn’t mean he can teetotal for six days and then guzzle 14 drinks on the seventh night every week with no consequences to his health.
If you want to throw back four or five drinks occasionally, you won’t likely suffer a severe drop in longevity. But the key word is “occasionally”; that doesn’t mean weekly.
Everyone’s drinking habits are unique, so where to start cutting back will vary based on your habits. If you find yourself frequently drinking at home or by yourself, consider cutting there first. If social drinking is your poison, start actively seeking non-drinking-related social activities to plan with your friends.
Better yet, quit drinking entirely to see a wide range of health and financial gains.
Behavior 3: Exercise
You knew this one was coming. Researchers found that the greatest longevity benefit came from working out for at least 30 minutes every day. The exercise could be moderate or intense, but the important points were that it was over 30 minutes, and it was a daily routine.
Even rigorous walking can deliver wide-ranging health benefits, from lower stress and improved mood to stronger bone density and greater cardiovascular health.
Set aside a slot in your daily schedule for working out. For the first three or four weeks, it will take willpower on your part; you’ll look for excuses not to do it, and it will be tempting to take “cheat days.”
But cheat days are a recipe for failure. The trick to working out every day is creating a habit that becomes so ingrained in your life, so routine, that it becomes thoughtless. It doesn’t take any willpower to brush your teeth; it’s simply a part of your daily routine. That’s your goal, and every day that goes by when you work out at the same time reinforces and strengthens the habit.
Working out doesn’t have to require expensive gym memberships, equipment, or celebrity workout DVDs. Those are excuses. Instead, try these free online workout videos you can follow at home or these free home workout routines. Some people find that they need the extra motivation of getting out of the house and going to the gym to get a quality workout in. If that’s the case, look into an inexpensive gym like 24 Hour Fitness. They frequently run deep discounts on memberships. They even offer free seven day passes.
Behavior 4: Diet
The Harvard researchers defined a low-risk diet as being high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and low in sweetened beverages, trans fats, sodium, red meat, and processed meats, such as hot dogs, sausages, and highly processed deli meats.
Once again, there are no surprises here, and there’s also no miracle fad diet. You’ve heard it before, and even if you don’t like it, you know it’s true: If you want to live a longer life, eat more vegetables, fewer hamburgers, and skip the bonbons entirely.
I love a good rib-eye steak as much as the next person. And I’ll be honest: I don’t skimp on the wine to pair with it. But I don’t eat one every week.
To go easier on both your waistline and your wallet, eat out at restaurants less and cook at home more. The more you cook, and the more comfortable you feel in the kitchen, the more likely you are to cook the next night. Like working out, cooking healthy meals becomes a habit if you force yourself to do it repeatedly.
Start with these cheap, healthy recipes to flex your culinary muscles. When you’re first learning to cook, start with simple recipes of your favorite meals. Even junk-food dishes can often be made healthy if you cook them yourself. For example, I recently learned how to make General Tso’s chicken because I wanted a healthier version than the low-grade fried dough and processed chicken that came on delivery. The Internet is full of simple recipes for novices, so search for some before you do your next grocery run. You can even subscribe to a healthy meal delivery service like Freshly. You choose the recipes you want to cook and they will package up and send you the ingredients.
If you have kids, get them involved. Have them help out, and make it a family exercise with one of these kid-friendly cooking recipes. By instilling in them both a love of cooking and an appreciation for healthy food, you lay the groundwork for them to live longer, healthier lives themselves.
Behavior 5: Healthy BMI
While body-mass index (BMI) is not a behavior per se, it serves as a measure for the other behaviors in the study. According to the researchers, a BMI in the 18.5 to 24.9 range was correlated with the longest life expectancy.
Sure, BMI is a far-from-perfect measure of health. It’s a ratio of height to weight, so a muscular man can have the same BMI as his pudgy, couch-potato brother for very different reasons. But as a quick shorthand, it still helps predict longevity.
Start by calculating your BMI on the NIH website.
If you do all of the other four behaviors listed above, your BMI should fall within the low-risk range outlined above. Granted, if you’re just starting to improve your health, it may take time to reach this healthy range.
Start with a weight loss routine, following these easy ways to lose weight through lifestyle changes. As with all of the behaviors above, the first month is the hardest. Gradually working out becomes easier as you lose weight, gain strength, and settle into a routine. The same goes for cooking healthy meals instead of picking up a pizza on the way home.
Once you reach your target weight and BMI, you can settle into a more normal, long-term diet that’s less restrictive.
How Longevity Impacts Retirement Planning
Adding years to your life is great, but will you be able to afford them?
How long you expect to live after retiring makes an enormous difference when calculating how much you need to save for retirement. It makes sense: A person who plans to live for 15 years after retiring doesn’t need to save nearly as much as someone who wants to retire young and live another 50 years.
Nor can you expect Social Security to bail you out in your golden years. While it was originally projected to happen in 2020, the Social Security Administration admitted in its 2018 report that costs have already surpassed revenues. And that’s after several decades of subtle benefit slimming. A 2018 study by The Senior Citizens League found that Social Security benefits have declined by 34% in real purchasing power since 2000.
In short, if you want a long retirement without financial stress, you must save more to foot the bill for those extra years of spending without earning.
The Math Behind Longer-Lived Retirements
One of the fundamentals behind retirement planning is the notion of safe withdrawal rates, or how much of your nest egg you can pull out each year to pay for living expenses. The classic safe withdrawal rate is the “4% Rule,” which asserts that you can withdraw 4% of your initial retirement savings each year with minimal risk of running out of money in under 30 years. (There are a few more nuances than that, such as asset allocation and allowable cost-of-living increases, but you get the gist.)
The 4% Rule is specific to a 30-year retirement. But what if you retire at 60, follow the 4% Rule, and live to be 97?
The longer you expect to live in retirement, the less you can safely withdraw from your retirement nest egg each year. Professor Wade Pfau of The American College has conducted extensive reviews of historical retirement portfolio performances, and in one such study reported in Forbes, he looked at the percentage of accounts that ran out of money based on the withdrawal rate.
For portfolios made up of 75% stocks (invested in the S&P 500) and 25% bonds (invested in intermediate-term U.S. government bonds), here’s what percentage of portfolios have survived at different withdrawal rates, at varying lengths of retirement:
If you withdraw only 3% of your initial retirement account each year, you can count on it lasting for at least 40 years. But if you withdraw twice that, or 6% per year, you have a 97% chance of it lasting 15 years, an 81% chance of it lasting 20 years, and shrinking odds from there.
What Longevity Means for Retirement Savings
How long you expect to live in retirement determines how much you can pull out every year. And how much you pull out every year determines how much you need to save.
Here’s how you can calculate how much you need to save for retirement:
Annual Spending x (100/withdrawal rate) = Target Nest Egg
So, if your annual spending is $50,000, and you plan on withdrawing 4% a year for a 30-year retirement, you divide 100 by 4 to reach 25, then multiply $50,000 by 25 to equal a target nest egg of $1,250,000.
Alternatively, if you plan on withdrawing 5% a year, you only need to save $1,000,000 ($50,000 x 20 = $1,000,000). But you can’t count on your nest egg lasting as long if you withdraw 5% compared to 4%.
A drinking, smoking, bonbon-munching couch-potato who only expects to live for 15 years after retiring can draw down their nest egg even faster, at a 6% rate. They only need to save up $833,333 to withdraw $50,000 per year with near certainty that their nest egg will last at least 15 years.
The longer you plan to live, the less you can withdraw each year, and the more you need to save for retirement relative to your spending. Here’s a quick visual cheat sheet for how much you should save for retirement at different ages.
Want to live a long, healthy life, but unsure how to pay for it? Spend less.
Spend less now, while you’re young and fit and working. That will free up more of your money to save and invest for retirement, which in turn will compound and grow all the faster.
Spend less in retirement too. The less you need to withdraw each year for living expenses, the less you need to save as a target nest egg.
Like the behaviors outlined above, it’s hardly new advice, or advice likely to make anyone happy. No one wants to hear that they should eat better, exercise more, drink less, and spend less. And no one says you have to do it. But for those disciplined enough to follow through, you can enjoy life expectancies 12 to 14 years longer than your less-disciplined peers — and actually afford it.
What are you doing to plan for a long, healthy, wealthy retirement?