Famous comedian George Burns was once quoted as saying, “If you live to be one hundred, you’ve got it made. Very few people die past that age”. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be more than one million centenarians living in the U.S.1 For most people, planning for retirement or their later years is focused mostly on finances and how they will spend their time. However, ensuring they spend those years in good health is something that many overlook. The times are certainly changing, with medical advances and technological breakthroughs, planning for retirement and living longer needs to be more holistic.
In 1970, average life expectancy at birth in the United States was 71 years. In 2014, it is 79 years; and by 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that average life expectancy will be 84 years.2 Today, according to the National Institute on Aging, there are over 40 million people in the United States aged 65 or older, accounting for about 13 percent of the total population. In 1900, there were just 3.1 million older Americans, or about 4.1% of the population.3
The vast majority of baby boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964—are on a quest to improve their odds of living longer than previous generations. They not only want to live longer, they want to live healthily, happily and more financially secure than ever before. Although there is no magic potion to ensure a long and healthy life, there are some notable accounts of individuals, families, and even whole communities that have defied the aging odds.
The holy grail of longevity
In one such amazing story, Stamatis Moraitis, a Greek veteran of World War II, narrates how he was diagnosed with lung cancer in the 1960s while living in the United States.4 He decided to forgo chemotherapy, and instead returned to his birthplace, Ikaria, the island where “people forget to die”. Moraitis abandoned his western diet and lifestyle and embraced the traditional island culture. His American doctors had told Moraitis he had only nine months to live, yet after moving to Ikaria he was still living— cancer free—45 years after his original diagnosis. According to the story, he never had chemotherapy, took drugs or sought therapy of any sort. All he did was move home to Ikaria and embrace the local lifestyle. He claimed he even outlived his U.S. physicians who, decades earlier, had predicted his imminent death as the only plausible outcome of his devastating diagnosis.
Moraitis is not alone when it comes to longevity on the island of Ikaria. In fact, University of Athens researchers have concluded that people on Ikaria are reaching the age of 90 at two-and-a-half times the rate of their American counterparts.5
Stark differences in their lifestyle are apparent, even to a casual observer. Stress factors such as daily schedules don’t exist on Ikaria. Although the average Ikarian regularly performs vigorous activities, it’s never considered exercise. The island has a symbiotic attitude characterized by equal acceptance and accountability for everyone. Keeping up with the neighbors on the island of Ikaria translates into good health, happiness and well-being for all.
Many traditional cultures with a strong ethnic heritage like Ikaria embrace the simplicities of life. The Ikarian diet is also a factor. It features fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices and local honey, which are all products of weekly harvests that every citizen contributes to and benefits from, thereby maintaining a social structure that literally nurtures the entire community. The legacy of an Ikarian lifestyle may be the closest we have come to discovering the holy grail of longevity.
Obviously, the fast-paced culture and appointment-driven lifestyles of most Americans isn’t conducive to tending to abundant gardens or taking daily naps, both of which provide health benefits and are common practices in Ikaria. However, by recognizing what works in other cultures, it may be possible to find an acceptable middle ground to tip the scales in favor of a long and healthy life—no matter where you live.
Unlocking the door to longevity
To try to further understand the keys to longevity, a survey was conducted by Pollara on behalf of the BMO Wealth Institute to record and analyze the views of 1,000 Americans on various aspects of aging.6
The wide-ranging survey questions were focused around four aspects of life that many experts in the field of aging consider to be the keys to unlocking the mysterious door to longevity.
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1 Living to 100? Giddan J, Cole E. The Huffington Post Blog, May 27, 2014.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-giddan-and-ellen-cole/living-to-100_b_5384496.html (accessed June 2014).
2 Life Expectancy–United States. Data 360. http://www.data360.org/dsg.aspx?Data_Set_Group_Id=195 (accessed June 4, 2014).
3 Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well-Being (Table 1a). National Institute on Aging, August 2012.
http://www.agingstats.gov/agingstatsdotnet/main_site/default.aspx (accessed June 2014).
4 The Greek island of old age. Bomford, Andrew. BBC News, Last updated January 6, 2013. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20898379 (accessed June 2014).
5 Sociodemographic and lifestyle statistics of oldest old people (>80 years) living in Ikaria Island: The Ikaria Study. Panagiotakos DB, Chrysohoou C, Siasos G, Zisimos K, Skoumas J. Pitsavos C. Stefanadis C. Cardiology Research and Practice, February 2011.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21403883?dopt=Abstract (accessed June 2014).
6 Survey conducted by Pollara for the BMO Wealth Institute between February 27, 2014 and March 3, 2014 with an online sample size of 1,000 Americans. Overall probability results for a sample of this size would be accurate to within 3.1%, 19 times out of 20.
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BMO Wealth Institute, a unit of BMO Financial Group, provides this commentary to clients for informational purposes only. The comments included in this document are general in nature and should not be construed as legal, tax or financial advice to any party. Particular investments or financial plans should be evaluated relative to each individual, and professional advice should be obtained with respect to any circumstance.