Sunday Musings: How Old Is Too Old?

MarketWatch featured an interesting story titled “How old is too old?” Here are some highlights:

An irritating question is being raised anew about candidates in this year’s election campaign: How old is too old?

The question came up in conjunction with John McCain, when critics on the stump pointed out that he is now 71 — exactly 25 years older than Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. Opponents delight in pointing out that if McCain wins the presidential vote in November and stays on for two terms, he would be 80 years old when he finally leaves office.

The age issue has also shown up strongly in other races, notably in the contest for a New Jersey seat in Senate. If incumbent Frank Lautenberg, 84, is re-elected, he would be a ripe 90 when his term expires. Presumably, or so his opponents suggest, that would make Lautenberg, a Democrat, more vulnerable to the ailments of the aged.

But supporters of older candidates argue that the age-based arguments against them are weak.
The fact is that, largely because of improved diet and medical care, people around the globe are living longer — and better-quality — lives than their forebears.

“I think 90 is the new 80,” says William Safire, who was the longtime conservative commentator. “People are lasting longer, living longer. To put up an age barrier and say that political people should not serve beyond it is dumb.”

For example, Safire says he’s a faithful listener to commentator Daniel Schorr on National Public Radio. “He’s 92,” says Safire, “and he’s sharp. He’s an inspiration to every geezer around.”

Safire, who is 78, works full time as chairman of the Dana Foundation, a large private organization that sponsors research into the mind, and he has become an expert in the field.

“The brain scientists assure me that the best thing you can do is to keep your mind active,” he says. “Keep deadlines pumping up in your mind. Mental athletics keep the mind in shape.”

Safire believes that you should plan for your life as if it consists of four quarters — the first quarter is from birth to age 25, the second quarter is 25 to 50, the third from 50 to 75, and the fourth from 75 to 100. “You have to start planning when you’re 50 for what you will be when you’re 75.”

What he started planning for in his 50s was volunteer work for the Dana Foundation. By the time he was 75, he decided to make a clean break from one job to another — both to retire as a full-time columnist for the New York Times and to move up to chairman of the Dana Foundation.

And he was able to make this transition with barely a shock to the system. As Safire admonishes one and all, “Never retire.”

The key lies in the last sentence. I have found that after having dealt with thousands of people in my advisor practice that those of retirement age but with active, busy or even working lives fare much better in the mental health department vs. those who hang around the house all day with no goals other than the weekly golf game.

I have had the good fortune of meeting several people in their mid 90s who where as sharp and up-to-date on events as any 50-year old. My view is that while retirement from an undesirable, stressful corporate job maybe better for your overall health, you still need to replace idle time with worthwhile endeavors. There seems to be a change in mindset as a some new clients in their late 80s, who came aboard a few months ago, had no interest in generating income from their assets but were strictly interested in growth of capital.

And then there is Richard Russell, the editor of the Dow Theory newsletter, who still writes every day, and he is in his 90s.

Whether running for political office or managing your personal life, physical fitness and mental agility go hand in hand and both need to be taken care of. If either fails, all bets are off. Personally, I have been a fitness buff for a long time. Having played tennis for the last 45 years, along with regular visits to the gym, I hope to make my career a very long one.

We all have idols and mine is an acquaintance named John. He is 85 years old and frequents the same tennis facility as I do. He still plays four times a week (on a 4.0 level) and runs a consulting business from his ocean front home. He has no intention of slowing down either activity, which puts him way ahead in the pursuit of a long and happy life.

About Ulli Niemann

Ulli Niemann is the publisher of "The ETF Bully" and is a Registered Investment Advisor. Learn more
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