How Long Do You Want to Live?

Last Updated Nov 16, 2010 11:24 PM EST

Ninety-two. Does that number sound about right? That was the average answer given by respondents to a recent survey sponsored by Genworth Financial when asked how long they'd like to live. While this is a good life goal, it's easier said than done, as you'll see below. Let's take a look.

First, age 92 is beyond the average life expectancies for people attaining age 65 -- those expectancies are 83 years for men and 86 years for women. In fact, for men who reach age 65, there's just a one in six chance they'll make it to age 92; for women, the odds are a little less than one in four. So if you want to reach age 92, you'll need to make sure you're doing everything you can to get there: following a healthy diet, getting adequate exercise, managing your stress, stopping smoking (if applicable), and getting sufficient sleep each night.

Second, it will take a lot of money to be retired until age 92, so make sure your retirement savings are sufficient. If you're going to be getting Social Security benefits and want them to last until you're 92, you'd be best off waiting until age 70 to start your benefits. Make sure you can generate retirement income until age 92 and beyond, and develop a strategy to pay for long-term care expenses.

Perhaps the most interesting results from the Genworth study were when survey respondents were asked what the most important factors are when deciding the ideal number of years to live. We can gain valuable insights from their answers:
  • 70 percent said being in good health
  • 34 percent said continuing to have loving family and friends
  • 28 percent said having a meaningful purpose in life
  • 28 percent said not being a burden on their family
  • 25 percent said having enough money to maintain their lifestyle
My opinion is that all of the above answers are crucial if you really want to make it to age 92. Let me tell you two stories that illustrate why I believe this.

The first is about a woman who's near and dear to my heart: my mother. She's approaching her 90th birthday and still going strong. She eats very well, gets lots of exercise through walking and gardening, is surrounded by friends and family, and volunteers at a local hospital thrift shop. She and my father made the right financial decisions so she'll always have enough money to maintain her lifestyle. The way she's going, I'm betting that she'll make it to 100!

The second is a story of a "fictional" relative who's actually a composite of a few real people I know. "Gary" is 73, and says he only wants to live five more years. He jokes that he eats fast food and ice cream to help fulfill his wish, and as a result, he's overweight. Gary mismanaged his retirement savings, and now he's broke; the only steady income he has are his Social Security benefits. He lost his home recently and has to work a few part-time jobs to make ends meet. He doesn't have a good marriage and very few friends -- he really has nothing to look forward to.

Indeed, Gary has substantial challenges. I can understand why he feels overwhelmed and doesn't care to live very long. Being an optimist, however, I believe that it's never too late. Gary could find something to look forward to. He could throw himself into helping his grandchildren. He could find a cause and volunteer where he can be helpful to other people. If he has good reasons for getting up in the morning, then he'll find the motivation to take care of himself.

This brings us back to the factors that people cited for living to age 92. If you can get the second and third reasons right -- having loving family and friends, and having meaningful purpose in life -- you'll be motivated to take care of your health and financial resources. None of these actions are necessarily easy, but they're well worth the effort if you want to make it to age 92 -- and beyond!

Image by iStockphoto contributor bloodstone
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  • Steve Vernon On Twitter»

    View all articles by Steve Vernon on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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