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On Aging

Weighing Benefits of Early Retirement

April 28, 1985| By the UCLA/USC Long Term Care Gerontology Center

Question: I am 59 years old and have worked since getting out of college in the 1940s. My wife and I are in good health, own our own home and have $50,000 invested. A friend is planning to retire early. What do you think? Does it make sense for someone like me?

Answer: According to financial experts, this may be a good year to opt for early retirement. Inflation is under control, and interest rates on retirement savings are high. Many companies are offering attractive "incentives" for employees to retire early.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that only 68% of men between 55 and 64 are working, while 10 years ago that figure was 77% and 20 years ago it was 86%.

Whether to retire early or continue working is an entirely personal decision. We have seen people who "blossomed" in this second stage of life and others who regretted the decision. At age 60, the average American will live another 15 to 20 years.

What activities do you have that will hold your interest? How much do you enjoy your job? Can you work part-time and phase out of employment? Can you and your spouse stand having each other around all the time? What changes will it mean in your life style?

In order to maintain your life style, an ideal retirement income should be 65% to 75% of your current salary. Since inflation is low now and expected to be low for a while, most employees will get only moderate salary increases. Since most pensions are based on average earnings for the last five years' employment, it may make little difference if you stay on or not, unless you anticipate a big raise or promotion. Make sure you are fully vested in the pension and that there's no penalty for early retirement.

Discuss the situation with your wife. Your local library may have some useful books about planning for retirement.

Q: I am overweight and fatigued. My family has a history of diabetes, and I'm concerned that I'll get it as well. My doctor has recommended dieting the last five years, but to no avail. Recently, I saw an advertisement for a diet doctor/nutritionist with a guaranteed computerized program. I thought I'd give it a try. What do you think?

A: We think it's time you took control of your life and became serious about dieting. However, we are concerned about the current approach you are considering. The first thing you should do is get a recommendation from your physician or local hospital for a real nutritionist, or call the American Dietetic Assn. at (312) 280-5000 for a recommendation.

Often, so-called "nutritionists" are a fad and nutrition advice has become lucrative (and often a rip-off). Many are receiving advice that is not useful and sometimes dangerous. The most flagrant cases are ones in which the nutritionist also sells expensive supplements. There is no legal certification for the profession, and anyone can put up a sign and call themselves a nutritionist.

A proper nutritionist can help you with diet-related problems, in your case weight loss and diabetes prevention. The nutritionist would work with you and your doctor and help you understand the recommendations. Generally a nutritionist will ask you to keep a log of your food consumption for one or two weeks. He or she will take a diet history, and often a blood and urine test.

If you've been overweight for years, don't expect to grow slim overnight. The proper diet can help control or prevent certain diseases but cannot cure them.

Ask about the nutritionist's training and what his fees are. If you are referred by your physician, see if the costs are covered by Medicare or any other insurance you may have.

Q: My 84-year-old grandmother lives in a nursing home. Until six weeks ago, she was pleasant and alert with a good memory. Since then grandmother has become progressively confused and paranoid. Her chart shows a very low blood-potassium level, and her doctor dismisses the problem as old age. Is it?

A: Definitely not. Old age causes neither hypokalemia (low potassium in the blood) nor confusion and paranoia. A low potassium level is a clue to an underlying problem. The most common cause of hypokalemia is the use of diuretics (water pills) to treat high blood pressure. The resulting dehydration and disturbance of body salts frequently cause confusion. If a person is also taking digitalis for heart problems, the low potassium can affect heart rhythm adversely.

Other causes of hypokalemia are Cushing's syndrome, an excess of steroid hormones produced by the body or contained in medications, and some kinds of kidney disease. Confusion and personality change may be seen in these conditions. Severe vomiting or diarrhea can also reduce blood-potassium levels, and dehydration or the underlying illness can lead to mental-status changes.

It is important that your grandmother's doctor begin potassium-replacement therapy, and even more important that he or she evaluate your grandmother's medications and physical condition to determine the reason for the hypokalemia. With luck, your grandmother may return to her previous condition.

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