Can knowing how long you might live change your life?

Don't dust off the golf clubs yet. Productive people live longer than their laid-back counterparts, the research showed. Giving up an interesting job actually seems to increase the risks to health and shorten lifespan - especially when retirees move away from lifelong friends.
iStockphoto

My wife and I recently attended a party where a good friend sincerely thanked me for advising him to start his retirement planning by estimating his life expectancy, as well as his wife's. Bill and his wife are in their late fifties now, and the website www.livingto100.com estimated that both of them might live until their early nineties. "We have another adult lifetime ahead of us" was Bill's surprised reaction.

He went on to say that his wife is very good at working with teens but needs to get a masters degree to be credentialed as a counselor/therapist. That will take two years of schooling, plus she'll need 3,000 hours of experience in order to be licensed.

Planning your retirement: how long and how well will you live?
How long do you have to live?
Does working longer increase your lifespan?

"We had wondered whether it was worth investing this amount of time into another career, given her age. When she realized she might have another 35 years or more to go, it became obvious that it would be a great investment," Bill told me. "The next week she signed up for her first classes."

After the party, Bill followed up with me by email: "The insight of the life expectancy test really galvanized us to not see hitting 60 as the beginning of a long slide down, but to instead look at new opportunities for how we can take all that we've learned in life up to this point and leverage it to make a contribution that's both positive for the world and enjoyable for us."

Bill's story is similar to another fifty-something friend of mine, whose mother died of ovarian cancer at age 55. My friend thought that would also be her fate. But I knew that she took care of her health and had long-lived relatives on her father's side of the family. The website www.bluezones.com estimated that she'd live into her nineties as well, even though she told the program about her mother's fate. Again, it gave her a whole new outlook on the rest of her life.

When I think back to my early twenties, my limited life experience resulted in unconscious decisions about career and lifestyle. I got the life that showed up, which, luckily, turned out to be pretty good in spite of a few detours. But now I and my fellow boomers have decades of life experience. We can make conscious and informed choices about how to spend the next 30 years, without needing to satisfy someone else's expectations or not knowing ourselves very well.

I hope these stories encourage you to estimate your life expectancy and then think about the implications. Talk the results over with your spouse, partner, or friends. What will you do with the rest of your life?

  • 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 Retirement Game-Changers: Strategies for a Healthy, Financially Secure and Fulfilling Long Life and Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck.