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Living to 100: An action plan

Living to 100 could soon be as American as apple pie. A majority already say that's their hope, according to a recent survey. The problem is, many people aren't taking the action steps they need to live long and well.

Sponsored by the Stanford Center on Longevity (SCL) in partnership with Time magazine, the survey reveals that 77 percent of Americans want to live to 100, and more than one-third believe they'll live beyond 90. Unfortunately, only one-third report that they're happy with their current financial situation and body weight. Furthermore, more than 40 percent currently under 65 believe they won't have the financial resources needed to live to age 100.

100-year-old piano player still tickling the ivory

Data collected by SCL on Americans' actual behaviors confirms these challenges. After reviewing the findings of eight national, multiyear studies of more than 1.2 million Americans done over two decades, SCL's Sightlines Project identified three areas that are critical to well-being as people age: financial security, healthy living and social engagement.

And within each area, SCL pinpointed nine specific action steps people can take to improve their situation.

Taken together, these steps can be used as a checklist for people who want to increase their odds of living a long, healthy life.

Financial security

The nine actions here fall into three categories: cash flow, asset growth and protection. Compared to healthy living and social engagement, the financial security action steps are generally the hardest to achieve on your own and most likely to be improved through help and support from employers, financial institutions and public policy.

Cash flow

  • Earn income that's more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level
  • Keep noncollateralized debt (credit card, student debt, payday loans) to manageable levels
  • Be able to meet a $3,000 emergency

Asset growth

  • Build funds for nonretirement goals
  • Save for retirement
  • Own a home

Protection

  • Get health insurance
  • Obtain long-term disability insurance and long-term care protection
  • Buy life insurance

The prevalence of Americans who took these action steps in 2014, in aggregate, ranged from a little more than half (54 percent) of those age 25 to 34 to a little more than two-thirds (69 percent) for people 65 to 74. All age groups under 65 have shown troubling declines since 2000.

Healthy living

The nine action steps here fall into two categories: healthy daily activities and risky behaviors. Most people know about them -- getting around to actually doing them has proven to be much harder.

Healthy daily activities

  • Exercise moderately (at least 150 minutes per week)
  • Have low sedentary time (less than 320 minutes per day sitting)
  • Maintain healthy body mass index (BMI) under 30
  • Eat five fruits and vegetables daily
  • Get sufficient sleep (between seven and nine hours per night)

Risky behaviors

  • Avoid tobacco and nicotine use
  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption
  • Avoid illicit drug use

According to the SCL Sightlines Project report, by 2011 fewer than two-thirds of Americans were taking these action steps -- both in aggregate and across age groups. And not much has changed in overall prevalence since 1999. Gains in some areas, such exercising more and smoking less, have unwisely been offset by increases in sedentary behavior and increased obesity.

Social engagement

The benefits of this area have been less obvious than those that come with improved financial security and health. Research demonstrates, however, that social engagement contributes significant benefits to physical and mental health and longevity. Many are surprised to learn that socially isolated people have mortality rates comparable to smokers and twice the mortality risk of the obese.

The nine action steps listed here fall into two categories: meaningful relationships and group involvement.

Meaningful relationships

  • Have deep interactions with a spouse or partner
  • Seek out frequent interactions with family
  • Get social support from family
  • Have frequent interactions with friends
  • Get social support from friends

Group involvement

  • Converse with your neighbors
  • Volunteer
  • Participate in the workforce

The prevalence of Americans who took these steps in 2012 ranged from 51 percent to 56 percent for all age groups. That's little changed since 1999, with one exception: Today's 55- to 64-year-olds are less likely to be socially engaged than their predecessors.

The proper perspective

Of course, taking all these steps won't guarantee a long, comfortable, healthy life. It's likely you know people who did all this and still didn't live a long life. Others might have lived a long time in spite of not following these healthy behaviors.

In addition, other actions not measured by the SCL project are beneficial to your long-term well-being. However, substantial scientific evidence indicates that living long and well is more realistic for people who do the things discussed here.

It's also important to recognize that many people aren't able to take many of these steps alone: They need help and support from others such as family, employers, communities, and local, state and federal governments.

While we can't control all these action steps, "There is a great deal that people can do to ensure long and satisfying lives," said Laura Carstensen, psychology professor and founding director of the SCL. "We hope that examining trends among factors known to influence longevity will help to inform national debate and stimulate entrepreneurial innovation."

The challenges of an aging society have been well documented. However, they result from one of humankind's greatest achievements: much longer lives. It's a nice problem to work on, and the SCL report provides smart advice for individuals, employers, communities, policymakers and governments.

Disclosure: I work at the Stanford Center on Longevity and participated in the Sightlines Project.

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