Getting older and getting better

The looming reality of senior citizen status scares a lot of boomers. No need. Laura Carstensen, a top expert on aging, says life gets only richer with time.

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Interview by Patricia B. Gray, Money Magazine contributing writer

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Carstensen: "We've got to rethink retirement. There aren't a lot of good reasons to quit working at 65."
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(Money Magazine) -- At 21, Laura Carstensen had an epiphany that could change your life. In a hospital for months after a car accident, she had a window on the world of elderly patients who, like her, were recovering from broken bones. Intrigued, she decided to study the psychology of aging.

Today, at 54, Carstensen is the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Funded with a $10 million gift from Texas billionaire Richard Rainwater, the center sponsors research by scientists and other professionals aimed at improving the lives of older people.

Carstensen herself is among the most respected and provocative scholars in her field. She's best known for research that debunked stereotypes of the old as slow and surly. We may lose a step on the tennis court and our memories aren't as sharp, but as she tells contributing editor Patricia Gray, we get happier as we get older.

Question: Isn't aging well just a matter of good genes and good luck?

A. You have more control than you think. Wealth and education are powerful predictors of quality of life in old age, and education may be the most important factor: Most college-educated individuals show almost no decline in functioning until their mid-eighties. They drive, dance, play sports. On the other hand, people with less than a high school diploma show a steady decline between 30 and 80.

Question: What can we do to better our odds of a happy old age?

A. Challenge yourself to learn new things. Learn a language. Take up the violin. Crossword puzzles and computer games aren't going to do the trick. You're retrieving information you've got in memory. Learning, though, seems to change the brain - it seems to improve resiliency.

Question: How important is physical fitness?

A. Obesity and inactivity will kill you. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise a day, but even just 10 minutes will help. Our bodies will benefit from any exercise at any age. Even frail, bedridden 80-year-olds benefit from regular programs of light weight lifting. After exercising they had fewer complaints of pain or discomfort.

Question: We boomers worry about financial security in old age. Many of us don't feel that we've saved enough.

A. Nearly a third of people over 50 have retirement savings of less than $25,000. Why don't we save? Uncertainty. We're the first generation that can reasonably expect to live into our nineties, so we don't know how to plan for it. My advice: Set a savings goal that sounds reasonable to you. Then get your employer to take the money out of your paycheck. Make saving automatic.

Question: Still, starting late means a small nest egg at 65.

A. We've got to rethink retirement. Unless you have health issues, there aren't a lot of good reasons to quit working at 65. Work gives structure and meaning to life, though you may not want to work the same long hours as when you were young.

Catholic nuns live, on average, six years longer than the typical American woman. Nuns never retire. I once visited a convent in Milwaukee. These women were sassy and funny and smart. Even on their deathbeds they felt they had a purpose. They believed they were offering their suffering to God. Now that's a rich life.

Question: Your research suggests that we get happier as we age. What about the proverbial grumpy old man?

A. That's a stereotype. Old people are less likely to be lonely or depressed than younger people, even college students.

Question: Old age is sounding better all the time. Is there a downside to all this joy?

A. Unfortunately, yes. Older people are more likely to focus on the positive when making decisions. That can be dangerous, especially when it comes to finances. So be aware of this tendency and build in checks and balances. Make a list of the reasons you don't need this item or this investment. Take more time to make important decisions. Consult someone you trust.

Question: So it's important to maintain that circle of trust?

A. Social isolation is as big a risk factor for ill health as smoking. Maintain strong relationships with the people who matter in your life. That's true wealth. To top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.