Death by Lifestyle

Robin Powell

I LOVE BOOKS BY Bill Bryson. If you haven’t read his latest, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, you should.

It’s an encyclopedia of the wonders of the human body. The overriding message, jumping out of every page, is how truly miraculous our bodies are.

Did you know, for example, that you are made of seven billion billion billion atoms? That if you laid all the DNA in your body end to end it would stretch 10 billion miles, beyond the orbit of Pluto? Or that your brain churns through more information in 30 seconds than the Hubble Space Telescope has processed in 30 years?

In many ways, the book is reassuring. The body is a master of self-defense. It’s estimated, for example, that every day between one and five of your cells turns cancerous, and yet your immune system captures and kills them. “There are thousands of things that can kill us,” writes Bryson, “and we escape every one of them but one.”

Just at this point in history, though, the human body seems rather fragile. The coronavirus just took my mother’s sister. She battled bravely in hospital for three weeks before finally succumbing. None us could be there to comfort her in the suffering of her final days. Thank goodness for the love and care of our medical services.

Auntie Joan was age 86. The vast majority of people who have died from COVID-19 have been over 75. But no one yet, as far as we know, is immune. The virus has claimed lives from every age group and will continue to do so.

The good news is, most of us will live far longer than our ancestors did. According to The Body, the human heart beats some 32 million times a year. At birth, the current life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.9 years. That equates, on average, to about 2.5 billion heartbeats per lifetime.

For most of our evolutionary history, Bryson explains, the typical human lifespan was nearer the average for mammals—around 800 million heartbeats. The reason we now live three times longer is entirely due to medical advances. The progress of medical science in the last 100 years or so has been astounding.

There is, however, a “but.”

“In 2011,” writes Bryson, “an interesting milestone in human history was passed. For the first time, more people globally died from non-communicable diseases like heart failure, stroke and diabetes than from all infectious diseases combined.”

He continues: “We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle. We are in effect choosing how we shall die.”

It’s a sobering thought. But what, you might be wondering, has any of this got to do with personal finance? I’d like to suggest three money-related takeaways from Bryson’s book:

1. Protect yourself — and your loved ones. Coronavirus notwithstanding, it’s increasingly unlikely you will die of an infectious disease. But don’t take unnecessary chances. Keep washing your hands. Make a will. Review your life insurance. Ensure your dependents are provided for in case the worst should happen.

2. Prepare for a long retirement. If medical science continues to develop at the same pace, who knows how long some of us may live? What if you make it to three or four billion heartbeats? Is your nest egg going to be big enough? The single most important thing you can do to avoid running out of money in retirement is to save more now. You should also investigate ways of funding long-term care.

3. To enjoy those savings, look after your health. Most of us need to take better care of our bodies than we do. Adult obesity rates are at or above 35% in nine states. A randomly selected American aged 45 to 54 is more than twice as likely to die as someone from the same age group in Sweden.

Retirement is a chance to have the time of your life. It’s a well-earned opportunity to spend your wealth, visiting places and enjoying experiences you always said you would. But you need to get there first—and to be in sufficiently good health to make the most of those final decades.

To increase your chances of doing that, the simple prescription is to eat sensibly and exercise regularly. You don’t need to run marathons. Just resolve to move more. As Bryson says, “What is certain is that in a few tens of years at most you will cease to move at all. So it might not be a bad idea to take advantage of movement, for health and pleasure, while you still can.”

Robin Powell is an award-winning journalist. He’s a campaigner for positive change in global investing, advocating for better investor education and greater transparency. Robin is the editor of The Evidence-Based Investor, which is where a version of this article first appeared. His previous articles include Take CourageWhy We Try and Good for YouFollow Robin on Twitter @RobinJPowell.

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