Monday, March 26, 2018

Why I Won't Live As Long As My Dad (And Why That's Okay)

Life ain't fair, and the sooner you get over this, the sooner you will get ahead.

A recent article on clickbait site MarketWatch claims that taking social security at age 62 could literally kill you.  The article cites a study by a Cornell professor and a professor from Australia who use statistical analysis and confuse correlation with causation.  This is a common error, but then again they are professors.   So you can excuse their mistake.  They don't have a lot of real-life experiences.

The premise of the article is that by analyzing mortality statistics, there appears to be a 20% increase in mortality among males who take early social security at age 62.   However, there is no such statistical anomaly for women, it appears.

The article goes on to argue that the professors are not confusing correlation with causation as data from earlier years before Social Security shows that the mortality rate does not increase at age 62 for men.  There are some problems with that statement.

To begin with, social security has been around an awfully long time.  The program was created in the 1930s and benefits start to be paid out in 1940.  In 1961 the law was amended to allow for early retirement at age 62.  Thus, when the authors opine about the effects of mortality prior to early retirement being in effect, we were talking about nearly 60 years ago when mortality rates were higher than they are today.

Moreover, I am not sure what the statement even means.  They claim there is no 20% disparity in the mortality rate of men prior to the enactment of the early retirement provision of Social Security.  But 20% compared to what?  The authors of the study or claiming that men who take retirement at age 62 have a 20% higher mortality rate than the men that do not take retirement at age 62.  But what are they comparing the pre-early retirement year data to?  Comparing it to itself?   Well, then of course you're not going to show any disparity in the mortality rate.

As I've noted before, statistics are not arguments. And once again, the Bureau of Specious Statistics raises its ugly head. People like to comb through mountains of data and then look for correlations, confuse them with causation, and claim that this is somehow "science."  This is not science.  Science is sending rockets to the moon and curing diseases.   Sociologists making statistical arguments is just advanced naval-gazing.

This is not to say that statistics don't have their uses, only that they can be very specious.  Statistics can also be misleading, particularly when general public tries to grasp statistical arguments.  For example there is a famous parody article about the dangers of bread.  As the author of that article notes, 98% of all convicted felons are bread users - and 90% of all crimes committed in the United States are committed within 24 hours of consuming bread!  This illustrates how silly correlation is as an argument.

I think there is another explanation for this apparent correlation - and a 20% delta really isn't that significant.  The authors of the "study" (and I wonder if this was funded by our tax dollars?) argue that perhaps retired men engage in a more sedentary lifestyle, sitting around bored watching television - and this kills them off at a rapid clip.

While the sedentary lifestyle is indeed killing off people in America, I highly doubt this is the case in this study.  It can take years and decades to shorten your life through sedentary living.  You don't just sit down one day in front of the TV and keel over dead two days later.

I think rather that what is happening is people have an intuitive understanding of their lifespan.  And many people take early retirement not because they want to, but because they are forced to retire due to health issues.   In fact, in many articles I read online about early retirement, health issues are often cited as one reason for retiring early - usually the second reason behind being laid off.

And indeed, there are a plethora of articles online about early retirement - MSN Money seems to post one once a week, if not more often.  The thrust of most these articles is that early retirement is a horrible, horrible thing, and you should never even contemplate this.  You should work until you're at least 70 years old, so you can collect "full Social Security" and be old and spry.

I don't do spry.

Seriously, there are articles galore about octogenarians who are riding bicycles and running endurance races - who have lean muscular bodies that are more like sinew than flesh.  And such people, of course, exist.  I had the privilege of working for an attorney who loved to ride his bicycle 50-100 miles a day.   He had a body like iron and was quite alert and competent well  into his 80s.

Of course,  I also wrote about my friend at Carrier who was also in very good shape and rode his bike to work everyday.  He was run over by a car.  I'm not sure what the moral is in that, other than life is not a guaranteed thing.  The good news is he survived, although I'm sure the injuries didn't help his life span.

Not all dogs live to be 14 - as I said time and time again.  Our life spans are variable and in some respects this is not "fair".  In terms of fairness in life, how long you live and how you die is probably one of the most fundamental unfair things, and has little to do with governments or politics.  People complain about about the unfairness of life and petition the government for relief.  But the ultimate unfairness is not something that can be fixed through laws or legislation.  It's something that God doles out and you either have to like it or lump it.

My dad lived into his 90s which is a pretty astounding length of time to live, even today.  It is funny, but I run into people in their 80s who have this idea in their mind they're going to live for a decade or two longer.  And while a decade may be entirely possible if they are in good health, more than that is pretty spectacular and Guinness Book of World Records kind of living.  Bear in mind that the oldest person in the world is usually a hundred and some teen years.  And bear in mind that the title of oldest person in the world changes hands on the weekly basis.

Living to a hundred or even a hundred and ten is more of an anomaly than the norm.  And granted, more and more people are doing it these days, but it's still a statistical aberration.  The average lifespan for Americans is still under 80.

Now granted, this average lifespan takes into account things like accidental deaths and suicides and infant mortality.  One of the aspects of aging is it the longer you live, the odds of your living longer increase.  If you live to be 60, the chances of making it to 70 are much higher.  And if you make it to 70, your odds of making it to 80 are pretty good.  That's because, statistically, you're no longer in the pool with people who died in auto accidents at age 20 or died shortly after being born.

If you live to be somewhere in your 80s, that's probably about what you can expect out of life.  Or putting it another way, that would be a pretty decent life.

How long you live is determined by a number of factors.  Your genetics has a big part in it, to be sure. But also your lifestyle decisions and choices have a big impact.  If you chain-smoke cigarettes for 30 years, this is going to shorten your life by at least a decade or two.  If you don't engage in any exercise and eat unhealthy foods - and eat far too many of them - it will also shorten your lifespan.  If you drink too much alcohol or take too many drugs, this can also shorten your lifespan if not outright kill you instantly  (or very slowly).

And while eating right and exercising can prolong your life, there's no guarantee of it.  Jim Fixx, the runner who popularized the sport of jogging, collapsed of a congenital heart defect while out jogging on a road in Vermont.  The irony was not lost on number of people.  However some doctors argue that he wouldn't have lived as long as he did if he hadn't taken up jogging.  So then there's that.  There's always room for improvement, and lifestyle changes can extend your life, even after years of abusing your body - or if you are subject to genetic issues and defects.

From a genetic standpoint, my odds of living to be a hundred are a mixed bag.  Like I said my Dad lived into his 90s, as he was pretty healthy, and exercised regularly - and gave up smoking after his father died of lung cancer.  My mother, on the other hand, died in her early 70s.  She smoked and drank and ate bad food.  Towards the end of her life, she was living on a diet of cheap white wine, vanilla ice cream, and True cigarettes.  She also refused exercise, and sat in front of the TV and got depressed.  And yes, mental health issues do affect your physical health as well.  She basically wanted to die and she let herself die as a result.  She literally refused treatment at the very end.

But even though my father lived to be in his 90s, he did have major health issues including a quadruple bypass.  And my sister also died of breast cancer, although I don't think that is really a genetic thing, but perhaps environmental one (the incidence of breast cancer skyrocketed in the 1980s and then declined in the 1990s, and nobody seems to be very curious as to why this is).

In terms of my personal health and lifestyle choices, it's sort of a mixed bag.  I never took up smoking which is a good thing, although I did a lot of drugs when I was very young.  I also drank a lot as a youth and still have a glass of wine at the end of the day.  Or maybe two glasses.  I try to get exercise - we go for a walk nearly every morning to the airport and back, which is about two miles.  But I'm not the athlete that my father was.  I don't play tennis, and very rarely play golf.  And I'm not even sure golf counts as exercise.  Mark Twain called it, "a good walk, ruined."

I do have two chronic health issues that also run in the family.  As I noted before, my grandfather is the only other lawyer in the family.  He had a prestigious amount of nose hair, diverticulitis and gout. And apparently I must have inherited his genes - although as I noted before, you can read too much into genealogy.

The problem with diverticulitis, is that when it flares up, it produces a raging infection in your intestines.  And if this infection goes unchecked, can inflame your intestines which can then burst causing an infection in the entire body cavity, known as peritonitis.  It is a gruesome and horrible way to die.  If caught in time, and you are given massive doses of antibiotics, it can be cured - in most cases.  A friend of mine is going through this right now after a botched gallbladder operation. Needless to say, we are quite worried about him, as it is a serious issue.

Even without that sort of incident, over the years I've had a number of these flare-ups who had to take pretty substantial doses of antibiotics to keep them in control.  Two of these, Avelox and Cipro are so powerful that they have side effects which include tendonitis.  One of my biceps actually partially detached as a result - a side effect which I didn't realize would happen until it did.  I wonder sometimes if people suffering from "fibromyalgia" in fact are suffering the side effects of antibiotic use.  Because tendonitis does make you ache all over.  Then again so does just getting old.

So it's totally possible I may not live as long as my father did - and I'm okay with that.  As I have noted time and time again in this blog, life is not "fair" and expecting it to be so is an exercise in frustration and futility.  What you have to do is take what your life is and make the best use of it possible.  Pining for what could be is pointless unless you have a plan to make that reality.  Only small children throw temper tantrums and cry "unfair! unfair!" when Mom won't buy candy at the checkout lane.  Sadly, often these tantrums result in Mom breaking down and buying candy - which sets up the kid for later disappointment in life.

But there is more to life than the sheer length of it, of course.

Toward the end of his life, after he remarried I think my father was fairly happy.  But for most of his life, I don't think he was a very happy individual.  As I noted in my posting about the haunted house, my parents were strivers and bought a beautiful lake house in central New York.  My Dad had to go to a job that he hated, every day, in order to support the family and have this wonderful possession. But tellingly, he never spend much time at home.  He would find excuses to be away from home such as "playing tennis" which was often a euphemism for visiting his mistress.  I look back on it now and think he must have been a very sad and depressed person as he was alienated from his children even then and his wife was basically a crazy alcoholic who he argued with constantly.  For him, going home at the end of the day was not something he looked forward to.

There is more to life than its mere duration.  Mark's grandmother lived well into her 90s, but the last five to ten years of her life were spent laying in bed watching a broken television.  Modern medical science can keep people alive for years even as the quality of their lives deteriorates dramatically. Using a bedpan or wearing an adult diaper is inconvenient enough.  Doing it for year after year would seem to be almost torture.

Thus, both Mark and I are of the opinion that living life to that extent is not necessarily a good thing. We would rather go like one of our neighbors, who complained of a mild headache and lay down to take a nap and never woke up.  No long drawn-out health crisis, no gradual deterioration that takes years or decades.  But you can only pray that that will be the case for you - this is not something that we have much control over, and the will to live is very strong.

However early retirement is something that we do have a modicum of control over - in some respects. As I noted time and time again in this blog, oftentimes retirement is something that is thrust upon you, not something that you plan carefully.  People ask me how much you should save up for retirement, and the answer often is "whatever you have when you are forced to retire."  And again, getting back to my father, that was the case.  In his mid-fifties he was forced out of his company which was failing, and forced to retire early - far earlier than he expected.  This is the norm, not the exception.

They did okay.  They had some equity in their "dream" house, some stocks and other mutual funds they had bought. He also had a small pension from his company and they both collected Social Security.  My mother also came into a small inheritance from her father which probably saved the day for them.

But apparently my father was not one of those statistical anomalies who died early as a result of collecting Social Security early (as these professors claim).

But I think for others - many others - early retirement is something that happens also when you are no longer able to work.  When your mind starts to slip and your body starts to wear out, the idea of working until you're 70 or beyond seems less and less of reality.  So you take early retirement and maybe you don't live as long, but your retirement might be as long as the person who works until 70 - perhaps longer.

The advantage of early retirement is that you can do things while you are still relatively young and ambulatory.   It is sad, but we see reports all the time of people who "work until their 70" and then keel over dead the next day.  Or people buy the motorhome of their dreams to embark on their trip to "See America" and then come down with a chronic illness and are forced to abandon their plans.

Granted, some people claim they love their work and in love working well into their 70s or beyond. Good for them if that is what makes them happy.  But not everybody loves their work, or if they love their work then they fall out of love with it after a while.  For me personally, doing anything for 5 years in a row seems tedious.  Doing it for 30 years in a row seems almost heroic.

Anyway, getting back to this study, I think it is basically full of horseshit.  People take early retirement because they sense they're not going to live as long.  They may have chronic health issues or other problems, and realize that if they wait until 70 they won't collect a penny, as they won't make it to that finish line.  Or, the health issues themselves force them to retire early in this forces them to collect Social Security at 62 because they have no other options.

Collecting social security at age 62 doesn't cause an early demise, but rather the other way around. People who sense they will die early collect Social Security early because there is no "later on" for them to collect.

A study from Cornell.  In Ithaca, New YorkGo Figure.