Raising retirement age could take physiological toll - East Valley Tribune: Business

Raising retirement age could take physiological toll

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Posted: Saturday, April 30, 2011 11:30 pm

A grayer workforce with brimming bucket lists may await us if a proposal to raise the retirement age makes its way into law.

In April, three Republican senators unveiled a plan that would include raising the retirement age to 70 by 2032. Most members of the Deficit Reduction Committee support a plan that would push it to 69. The change would begin phasing in by 2022 for those born in 1960 or later.

The retirement age is when seniors can begin to collect Social Security benefits. Both plans aim to fix the Social Security system, which is straining under the weight of retiring baby boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- and increased longevity.

Much has been written about the proposals' financial aspects. Less has addressed their human costs.

Geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a professor at the Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles, has seen an upswing in enrollment for her geriatric depression studies since the recession began. If the retirement age is raised, she expects more.

"I anticipate many more people suffering from depression, anxiety and, from that, more cognitive problems," Lavretsky said.

Ventura (Calif.) County Health Agency director Bob Gonzalez said physical health problems can arise if a person is in an unsatisfying job strictly for health benefits and salary.

"It's important not to underestimate the effects of stress," Gonzalez said. "It chronically elevates the adrenaline level. Your heart can be affected by that. You might unmask heart disease."

Elena Garza, 61, retired this year from her job as a school attendance technician. If she could have afforded to, she would have retired last year. Her husband of 41 years died of heart disease a year ago.

"If I would have retired, we would have traveled," she said. "Gone to Texas and visited family."

Others, like orthodontist William Hang, hope to work as long as they can. He didn't give his age except to say he is a baby boomer. Hang ran this year's Boston Marathon. He's doing all he can to stay healthy enough to stick by the dentist's chair.

"I hope to die by the chair," he said. "I tell my patients, 'I just hope you're not the one in the chair when I do.' "

Everyone ages differently, health experts say, and diet and exercise can add quality years. But all of us become more vulnerable to chronic ailments as we age.

"We know the incidence of Alzheimer's begins to rise in the mid-60s and gets even steeper in the 70s," said Dr. Kenneth Kosik, a professor of neuroscience at University of California, Santa Barbara.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 70s are a lot different than the 60s. According to a six-year survey completed in 2006, those 65 can expect at least 12 more years of activity without aches and pains that limit the ability to perform daily tasks. At 75, you can expect about six more years.

The CDC says the number of serious eyesight problems more than double every decade after age 65.

Lavretsky said some people in their 70s are resilient and don't want to retire, but a large percentage have physical and cognitive disabilities.

"The people I'm dealing with are struggling to find employment," said Lavretsky, calling it "nearly impossible."

Many seniors may have to spend their healthiest golden years on the job, rather than taking that motorcycle trip they always dreamed of.

Bruce Gillies, an organizational psychologist for California Lutheran University, recommends that older workers stay current on technology and retrain in another field if necessary. Technology will be an asset for those who need to work into their late 60s, he said.

"Working from home will be a significant option for older workers to look at," Gillies said. "That, or being a consultant."

Working a bit longer can help give seniors a sense of meaning and belonging, according to Gonzalez.

When he was in private practice, he noticed that all his healthy centenarians had a sense of purpose.

"Taking care of great-grandchildren was purpose for some," he said. For others, it "was centered around servicing others, family, church or volunteerism. It's about redefining your dream."

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