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Staying Alive

Dennis Friedman

WHEN I TOLD MY employer I was retiring, I received phone calls from coworkers I hadn’t heard from in years. One of them was Peter. We were hired about the same time.

Peter congratulated me, and said he’d be retiring too—if he’d joined the company’s pension plan. For some reason, like a few of my other coworkers, he never took advantage of the benefit, which required employees to make regular payroll contributions.

Peter did retire about five years later. Shortly afterwards, he bought a house in a retirement community. He was fixing it up and hired painters to give it a fresh coat of paint. When the painters arrived, no one answered the door. They went around to the back of the house to see if someone was at home.

They looked in the window and saw Peter slumped over the kitchen table. He died from a heart attack. He never even had a chance to unpack the moving boxes.

Bernie was another one of my coworkers. He was hired shortly after graduating from high school. We were both big college football fans. We talked about attending football games together when we retired.

After 50 years of service, he retired at age 70. Bernie made a wise financial decision when he was hired. He enrolled in the company’s pension plan. Two weeks after he retired, he died of a heart attack.

Warren was a close friend from college. We both retired about the same time. He was financially secure. Between his income annuities and Social Security, he had a comfortable, predictable income. He also had a seven-figure retirement savings account. His house was paid off. He owned another home in the same area free and clear. He also owned a condo in San Diego County, which he visited frequently.

One evening, while sitting at home, he suddenly experienced excruciating pain. His wife called 911. They told her to give him CPR. But she couldn’t get him out of his chair and onto the floor, where she could administer it. By the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late. He died of a heart attack.

Bob was my neighbor in Long Beach, California, where I used to live. He retired about five years ago. He also has a company pension. He and his wife were enjoying their retirement—until one night, when Bob woke up, sweating profusely. He felt terrible. He got out of bed and found his way to the living room, where he plopped himself in his chair.

The next morning, he had no energy and his voice was weak. His wife took him to the emergency room. He was told he had a heart attack.

The No. 1 threat to your retirement might not have anything to do with what the stock and bond markets do today or tomorrow. It also might not be your poor choice of investments or spending habits. Instead, it could be the No. 1 killer in the U.S.: heart disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one American dies every 34 seconds from cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association’s 2021 report notes that 77.5% of men and 75.4% of women ages 60 to 79 have some type of cardiovascular disease, while 90% of those aged 80 and older have it.

Fortunately, we can reduce the risk of heart disease by having a healthy lifestyle. Here are six steps you can take to live a long and active life:

  • Understand your risk. If you’re between age 40 and 75 and haven’t had a heart attack or stroke, you can use the American Heart Association’s risk calculator to estimate the possibility of having a cardiovascular episode in the next 10 years.
  • Shed excess pounds. Being overweight can increase your risk of heart disease by putting too much stress on the heart and blood vessels.
  • Eat and drink healthily. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables and fewer processed foods. Stay away from foods high in saturated fats, trans fat, salt and sugar. Don’t overdo your alcohol consumption. According to CDC guidelines, moderate drinking is no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink for women. Too much alcohol can cause high blood pressure.
  • Get moving. Exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower your blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels. The Surgeon General recommends adults get 2½ hours per week of moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking and bicycling.
  • Take prescribed medicine as directed. Statins are a group of medications that can lower the low-density lipoprotein (bad) cholesterol in your blood and help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. In an AARP article, James Min, former director of the Dalio Institute of Cardiovascular Imaging at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, commented, “Half the people prescribed statins will not be taking them after one year. And by five years, 90% are not taking their medications.” Don’t stop taking your medicine without talking to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking cigarettes can significantly increase your risk of heart disease. The chemicals you inhale from smoking can cause atherosclerosis, a condition where a sticky substance called plaque builds up inside your arteries.

Dennis Friedman retired from Boeing Satellite Systems after a 30-year career in manufacturing. Born in Ohio, Dennis is a California transplant with a bachelor’s degree in history and an MBA. A self-described “humble investor,” he likes reading historical novels and about personal finance. Check out his earlier articles and follow him on Twitter @DMFrie.

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