STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Most people over 50 think they're likely to be healthier and more active in retirement than their parents were. That's what people said in a poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. But people may be wrong. Some experts worry that the generation now approaching retirement may actually be less healthy in old age and that could have serious financial consequences for the nation as a whole. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.
JULIE ROVNER: If you want to see what it means to live a long and active life, look no further than the rec room at the Greenspring Village Retirement Community in Springfield, Virginia.
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ROVNER: This is the Wii bowling competition for the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics. Up now, the 80 to 99 age group. Given these competitors' age, organizers are making a few accommodations.
HELEN DEARDORFF: Sir, can I hold onto a chair or something?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You can hold a chair if you want to. I can set that chair up here for you if you like.
ROVNER: The bowler in Helen Deardorff. She turns 90 this week. She also won a silver medal. Now, clearly these folks are the cream of the crop of their generation when it comes to living long and well, but a majority of the generation following them think they're going to follow in those same footsteps, at least according to our poll. Take Amy and Randy Rolin. They came to Greenspring last week to cheer on Randy's mother, Marcy.
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ROVNER: Marcy's competing in the 80 to 90 age group. Amy and Randy are both in their 50s and say they're working now to prepare for a healthy old age. Randy, for example, says he runs and works out every day.
RANDY ROLIN: I've been working out for 20, 22 years now, 22 years. And I plan on working out until I die. I hope to die healthy, fit, fast, nice and healthy, not laying in a bed somewhere.
AMY ROLIN: And we eat right.
ROLIN: Yeah, and eating right, yeah.
ROLIN: And we eat right most of the time.
ROVNER: But many boomers who haven't retired yet may be in for something of a rude surprise.
GILLIAN STEELFISHER: Health and exercise are some of the places where we see the biggest differences between what retirees have experienced and what pre-retirees say they expect to experience.
ROVNER: Gillian SteelFisher is with the Harvard School of Public Health and worked on the poll. Like the Rolins, SteelFisher says only one percent of boomers surveyed said they expect to exercise less when they retire, yet a third of all retirees said they're getting less exercise now than they did when they were working. Similarly, she says, only 13 percent of people who haven't yet retired say they expect their health to be worse in retirement than it is now.
STEELFISHER: But in fact almost 40 percent of those who retired say their health is worse in retirement than the five years before they retired.
ROVNER: She says there's two possibilities.
STEELFISHER: Maybe that pre-retirees in fact will be healthier when they retire, but it may also be that they don't fully anticipate the challenges that are going to come and potential health deficits that will exist when they retire.
ROVNER: That's the nice way of putting it. Jeff Goldsmith, a health care futurist who's written a book about the baby boom generation, is a little more blunt.
JEFF GOLDSMITH: Hello? I mean, that's what getting older is eventually about. We're all going to have serious health problems in retirement and eventually really serious health problems.
ROVNER: Goldsmith, himself a boomer, says he's not at all surprised that his fellow boomers expect to live a long and healthy old age.
GOLDSMITH: There is no question that one distinguishing feature of our generation is this extraordinary, almost genetic optimism. And the poll results look to me like a lot of that optimism was drawn from a deep well of self-delusion.
ROVNER: Indeed, he says, while some boomers are exercising and eating right, other studies show that's clearly not the norm, and the obesity epidemic in particular could be leading the baby boom into serious trouble, he says.
GOLDSMITH: That third of the population that's obese, we're going to see an explosion of diabetes and related illnesses that I think could take out a significant fraction of our generation significantly earlier than people expect.
ROVNER: In fact, unexpected health problems might do more than prevent aging boomers from exercising in their later years. Sixty percent of those not yet retired in our poll said they planned to continue to work past age 65. And many who now expect to retire later than they originally thought say it's because they can't afford to retire. So health issues could put an even bigger financial burden not just on them but on their children and possibly the rest of the nation's taxpayers. Julie Rovner, NPR News.