As many to this column know by now, I am intrigued with human longevity. I do find it interesting to study the reasons why many experience long lives, and then again, why others depart this life earlier than planned. Certainly, in my own family, I watched my wife’s amazing grandmother who lived to age 104. My father, who died in June at the age of 89, drew social security retirement for over a quarter of a century. What a life he experienced. From his youth during the great depression, to serving in World War II and then following the American dream through a 40-year career, Dad truly embodied what those of the “Greatest Generation” were about.
There was a study published a couple of years back by the Health Services division of Shell Oil Company in Houston, Texas. Its focus was to examine the lives of retirees after they leave the workplace. Conventional wisdom has usually sided with the impression that those who retire earliest; that being 55 to 60 years of age, will live longer than those who retire later. Wrong. According to findings from this study, there is no prevailing evidence that increased longevity is any greater for early retirees than for those who continue working.
Reuters Health Information reported that long-term survival rates also improve with increasing the age of retirement for both high-income as well as low-income groups. It has long been thought that the less stressful and more relaxed lifestyle associated with early retirement would allow people to live longer. But, in fact, the opposite was found to be true.
The Shell report actually reported that those who retired at age 55 had a significantly increased mortality — compared with those who retired at 65. Reuters also found that the death rate was nearly two times higher in the first 10 years after early retirement at age 55 compared with those who kept working. Those who retired at 60 to 65 had similar survival rates.
The older I get, the more I understand the value to having a cause or purpose in life. Certainly, we all know of those who dislike their work and dread coming in to the office to the point of wrecking one’s health. But I see a corollary to linking purpose in one’s life with longevity. And, in fact, if you study your own genealogical background, you will find that most ancestors living back 100 to 150 years ago basically worked until they died. Despite hardships, many lived remarkably long and productive lives without the benefits of modern medicine that are available today. For these descendants, there was no recognized retirement other than children stepping in to manage the farm or store if poor health developed. And, 100 to 150 years ago, many of one’s children lived close by — as opposed to the case with American life today. What was it that kept them alive and active to experience life unto a ripe old age? Could it have been the emotional support provided through large families so prevalent in those days? Then again, could it have been linked to these forbearers finding a purpose to life’s journey? There is no definitive answer here, but it bears thought.
I suspect the Shell and Reuter’s study points out the fact that finding purpose in life’s work is good nutrition for both the body and soul. It also brings validity to the fact that a certain level of stress, when directed in the proper manner, allows our bodies to function at the speed and capacity in which great tasks can be accomplished. My own maternal grandfather, Ike Stone, was a clear example of that. He practiced law in Coffeeville until he was eighty years old and found great fulfillment in his work — particularly in the arena he loved most; the courtroom. He enjoyed his work each and every day to the end of his life. While I’m sure he encountered his share of stress and worked for many long hours to maintain his practice, he seemed focused on directing his life’s work towards a higher purpose. Perhaps we should all focus our lives with a little more purpose. Might help us enjoy a longer stay here on earth, as well . . . .
>> This Month’s Parting Shot: The recent success of Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner, who became the first human to survive a death-defying 24-mile free fall jump from outer space, was incredible. Can you imagine what it would be like to free fall towards earth at a rate faster than the sound barrier? Baumgartner was asked: if there was only a 50 percent chance that you would survive the jump, would you still do it? His answer: “Never. If I do something, it’s always 90 percent obvious and 10 percent unknown. Any odds less than that would be stupid.”