MONEY retirement planning

4 Ways to Fix Our Retirement System

These changes would help all of us work longer, if we want to, and retire more comfortably.

Boomers have expressed a strong desire to remain engaged in the market economy. They still want to make a difference. They’re a creative force for change.

What could the government do to make it practical and desirable for more people to work longer? After spending two years researching my new book, Unretirement, I think the answer is: Fix four problems in America’s retirement system. In my opinion, these remedies would entice boomers to stay on the job, switch careers (possibly pursuing encore careers for the greater good) and launch businesses in midlife.

Below are four initiatives I think might accelerate unretirement; you may like all, a handful, or none of them. But hopefully, taken altogether, the ideas will spark a conversation about what’s possible and desirable for encouraging unretirement and encore careers.

1. Make America’s retirement savings system universal and with lower costs. It’s high time to acknowledge that our retirement savings system is not only broken, but unsuited for the new world of unretirement.

Only 42% of private sector workers ages 25 to 64 have any pension coverage in their current job. The result, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, is that more than one third of households end up with no coverage during their working years while others moving in and out of coverage accumulate small 401(k) balances. In short, the current system doesn’t even come close to universal coverage for the private economy.

The typical value of 401(k)s and IRAs for workers nearing retirement who do have them was about $120,000 in 2010, according to the Federal Reserve. That sum would provide a mere $575 in monthly income, assuming a couple bought a joint-and-survivor annuity, calculates Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Defined-contribution savings plans, like 401(k)s, can be improved. They’ve asked too much of people. You’ve usually had to voluntarily join (a difficult decision for lower-income workers living off tight budgets); many employees have been overwhelmed by their plans’ enormous mutual fund options, and high fees have eroded their returns.

In addition, most 401(k) participants don’t have the option of receiving payments from their plans as a stream of annuitized income that they can’t outlive in retirement. It’s widely recognized that plans need to offer their near-retirees this choice.

Lawmakers should require 401(k) plans have: automatic enrollment (where you can opt out if you wish); automatic annual escalation of the percentage of pay employees contribute (again, you could opt out of this feature); limited investment choice (say, no more than five or six); low fees and an annuity option for retirees.

The government could open up to companies that don’t offer a retirement plan to their workers—usually smaller firms—the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), one of the world’s best designed plans. Contributions could be made through payroll deduction, so the cost to firms would be minimal.

The TSP offers five broad-based investment funds along with the option of a lifecycle fund. Its annual expense ratio was an extremely low 0.027% in 2012, meaning for each fund, the cost was about 27 cents per $1,000 of investment.

“What’s the downside?” asks Dean Baker, co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, during an interview at his office. “It’s common sense.”

Better yet, lawmakers could create a universal retirement plan attached to the individual. There have been a number of proposals over the years along these lines. For instance, the government could enroll every worker in an IRA through automatic payroll deduction.

2. Allow Americans who delay claiming Social Security to take their benefits in a lump sum. That’s a proposal being floated by Jingjing Chai, Raimond Maurer, and Ralph Rogalla of Goethe University and Olivia Mitchell of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

The scholars give this example: Older workers who decide to stay on the job until age 66, rather than retire at 65, would get a lump sum worth 1.2 times the age 65 benefit and would also receive the age 65 annuity stream of income for life when filing for benefits at 66. Those who wait until 70 would get a lump sum worth some six times their starting-age annual benefit payment, plus the age 65 benefit stream for life.

Among the attractions of a lump sum are financial flexibility, the option of leaving money to heirs, and—for “financially sophisticated individuals”—the opportunity to invest the money. The lure of the lump sum would encourage workers to voluntarily stay on the job, on average by about one and a half to two years longer, the researchers calculate. Nevertheless, the workers’ Social Security benefits wouldn’t be cut, they would still have a lifetime annuity to live on and Social Security’s finances would remain essentially the same.

3. Offer Social Security payroll tax relief. A leading proponent of this idea is John Shoven, an economist at Stanford University. The current Social Security benefit formula is based on a calculation that takes into account a worker’s highest 35 years of earnings. Once 35 years have been put in, the incentive to stay on the job weakens, especially since older workers usually take home less pay than they did in middle age, their peak earning years.

Why not declare that older workers are “paid up” for Social Security after 40 years, asks Shoven. Why not indeed? There are a number of proposed variations on the idea, but they all converge on the notion that eliminating the employee share of the payroll tax around that point would be an immediate boost to an aging worker’s take-home pay and getting rid of the employer’s contribution then would lower the cost of employing older workers.

The change seems like a win-win situation from the unretirement perspective. “It’s an incentive for people to work longer,” says Richard Burkhauser, professor of policy analysis at Cornell University.

4. Change the rules for required minimum distributions (RMDs) beginning at age 70½ from 401(k)s, IRAs and the like. The requirements are Byzantine. For instance, with a traditional IRA, the RMD is April 1 following the year you reach 70 and six months, even if you are still working. The withdrawal requirement includes IRAs offered through an employer, such as the SIMPLE IRA and a SEP IRA. The same withdrawal date applies with a 401(k), unless you continue working for the same employer. But there is no RMD with a Roth IRA.

Got all this?

A pet peeve of mine is how unnecessarily complicated the rules are for retirement savings plans. Washington could raise the required minimum distribution rules on all plans to, say, age 80 or 85. Then again, Washington could simply eliminate the RMD altogether.

Like the other proposals mentioned earlier, I think it’s worth a try.

This article is adapted from Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing The Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life, by Chris Farrell. Chris is senior economics contributor for American Public Media’s Marketplace. He writes about Unretirement twice a month, focusing on the personal finance and entrepreneurial start-up implications and the lessons people learn as they search for meaning and income. Tell him about your experiences so he can address your questions in future columns. Send your queries to him at cfarrell@mpr.org. His twitter address is@cfarrellecon.

More from NextAvenue.org:

What You Should Know About the 50+ Job Market

Dip Your Toe Into the Encore Career Waters

Phased Retirement: What You Need to Know

TIME Aging

How Grief Makes You Sick in Old Age

Grief
Getty Images

A new study may explain why some elderly couples pass away only a short time apart

It’s a story that’s familiar and sad, if completely romantic: one half of an elderly couple passes away, and the partner follows soon after–like this couple of 62 years who died just hours apart. Now science may explain why.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK report in a new study published in the journal Immunity and Ageing that age alters how the body’s immune system responds to grief and bereavement. Young people seem to be more resilient when it comes to enduring the effects of grief, while older people become more susceptible to infection.

Grief can affect our immune systems via stress hormones, the authors show in their study on 41 young people (around age 32) and 52 older people (around age 75). Some were experiencing grief and others were not. The authors measured the effect of bereavement on the function of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell essential to combating infection, as well as the stress hormones cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEAS).

The elderly grieving participants had reduced immune function, higher stress hormone levels, and weaker neutrophil function compared to their younger counterparts–evidence that older people are more likely to have a compromised immune system when experiencing grief, the researchers believe.

That might be because the elderly already have aging immune systems with less capacity to respond to new pathogens, says study author Anna Phillips, a researcher in behavioral medicine at the University of Birmingham.

We need balanced hormones to keep our immune systems in check, but around age 30, the amount of DHEAS we produce starts to decline–and elderly participants have about 20% of the DHEAS they had in their youth, Phillips says. DHEAS balances out cortisol, which keeps inflammation at bay, so to have both of them out of whack increases infection risk.

Phillips also notes that the interplay of grief and stress hormones on the immune system might explain quick succession of partner death. “We’ve all heard stories about someone who died and the spouse is perfectly healthy, but maybe they break their hip, then get pneumonia. If stress from bereavement makes the neutrophils stop working well, then that person with an added trauma like a broken hip becomes more susceptible.”

DHEAS comes in supplement form, and Phillips is considering conducting a study looking at whether giving supplements to elderly people undergoing grief could have protective benefits. But you can balance your hormones naturally through exercising, having active social networks, and paying attention to your diet, she says.

MONEY retirement planning

How to Ease Into Retirement on Your Own Schedule

Man checking wrist watch
Getty Images

More employers are offering phased retirement programs, which give you more flexibility and let you work fewer hours. Here's how to swing it at your job.

Older workers are a hot topic among HR professionals these days, especially since the share of the labor force of people 55 and over is projected to rise to 25% by 2020. That conversation will increasingly shift toward redesigning corporate benefits for them—especially helping older employees phase into retirement.

But what are firms actually doing to ease this transition and what should you do if you’d like yours to let you gradually move from full-time to part-time and eventually no-time?

Ad Hoc Deals for Phased Retirement

Typically, motivated older workers have had to try negotiating ad hoc arrangements with HR or their boss for gradual exits out of the company, perhaps with part-time contracts in hand. “If employers would accelerate the drive for flexible work arrangements, everyone would be better off,” says Richard Johnson, labor market expert at the Urban Institute. “Flexibility is important.”

But some firms have made strides toward offering their employees greater job flexibility. A Bank of America Merrill Lynch survey of 650 C-level executives and human resources and benefit plan leaders found that half of the employers offer flexible or customized work schedules to retain older workers. A third offer continuing education and development opportunities, while 22% let employees work remotely and 21% offer extended benefits to older employees, such as cafeteria plans that allow for tailoring benefit packages.

How Employers Are Changing

Until fairly recently, the term retirement in the workplace signaled the day an older employee left the organization to enter a lifestyle of leisure. At least that was the image. But a number of far-sighted managements now recognize that the work-and-retirement divide is less true today and that realization will likely affect the design of employee benefits.

Case in point: Intel. Like all big, dynamic companies, the Silicon Valley behemoth offers its employees a good benefits package, including retirement savings. But Intel also supports employees phasing into retirement. Recently, the company has experimented with several new pilot programs.

For instance, U.S. employees eligible to retire from Intel can apply for an Encore Career Fellowship. That helps them ease into the next stage of their lives by leveraging their skills, evoking their passions, and making an impact in their communities through a short-term stint at a local nonprofit.

“Creating a culture that supports our employees as they prepare and plan for retirement is important,” says Amber Wiseley, Intel Retirement Benefits Strategist. “Our employees are looking for different options to reimagine retirement and are seeking opportunities to continue to have an impact on society.”

Jobs With Built-In Flexibility

A comparable conversation is taking place far from Silicon Valley, at Herman Miller in Zeeland, Mich., where about a quarter of the company’s workforce is 55+. Does that mean in five years Herman Miller will suffer an enormous outflow of employees heading into retirement? Doubtful.

“The old model that people will retire at 62 and they’ll pack up their belongings and move to Florida is really dated,” says Tony Cortese, Herman Miller’s senior vice president for human resources. “I don’t think that’s the reality we confront.”

Still, Herman Miller execs worry about losing their older employees’ skills and knowledge too quickly. So the company has instituted programs with built-in flexibility. For example, workers get to take six to 12 consecutive weeks off during the year. Employees aren’t paid during that time, but keep their benefits and length of service toward their pension. Says Cortese: “We’ve had people who are 55 or older say, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for retirement, but I’m going to try this instead.’”

Herman Miller also recently rolled out a “flex retirement” plan, allowing an employee who’s 60 or over and has at least five years of service at the company to plan an exit over six months to two years. The retirement decision is irreversible and, in return for the planned reduction in hours, the flex-retirement employee puts together a knowledge-transfer plan to teach the ropes of his or her job to a replacement. Observes Cortese: “They say, ‘I’m ready to retire, but I’m not ready to go today.’”

Letting Full-Time Workers Go Part-Time

At Baptist Health South Florida, the largest not-for-profit health care organization in the region, employees who are at 59-and-six-months who have been with the company for 10 years or more can begin drawing on their retirement savings and still work part-time.

AGL Resources, a natural gas distribution company based in Atlanta, Ga., lets its retired workers return on a part-time or project basis and participate in company benefits, such as its 401(k) plan. The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., which Next Avenue recently said may be America’s best employer for older workers, is famous for its flexible work schedules and telecommuting opportunities.

A critical initiative that will inform the Unretirement movement is the federal government’s new phased retirement program. Starting in November, many full-time government workers with at least 20 or 30 years of service who are nearing retirement age can apply to work a part-time schedule while drawing partial retirement benefits. The program also requires participants to spend at least 20% of their time mentoring younger employees.

What the Future Holds

Employers like these represent just the beginning of a trend that will gather momentum as Unretirement and encore careers become part of the expected and desired lifecycle among an aging workforce. Benefits like these are good for employees and employers. Says Joseph Coughlin of MIT’s AgeLab: “In the near future, the ‘new kid down the hall’ may, in fact, be someone’s grandmother in the next stage of her multi-act life.”

However, the Unretirement movement could have a larger impact on the professional experience later in life with a little encouragement.

Take attorneys 65 and older. A series of changes in the legal marketplace has reduced the demand for aging boomer attorneys. The growth in legal services has been driven by corporations and organizations that use large firms less reliant on senior lawyers, and the demands for legal advice by individuals who traditionally hire smaller firms to represent them is down.

“Thus, just at a time when the demographics of the legal profession have produced a very large pool of senior lawyers, the proportion of the legal profession that is needed to remain in senior positions to supervise paid work and to be well compensated for this work is declining,” observe Kenneth G. Dau-Schmidt, Esther Lardent, Reena Glazer, and Kellen Ressmeyer in Old and Making Hay, a research paper for the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University, Bloomington.

The solution, these legal experts say, is for law firms to establish “second act” programs for their senior attorneys. Senior lawyers would concentrate much of their energies on the firm’s pro bono work. The scholars calculate that even if a mere 5% of practicing attorneys over 65 participated in a pro bono second act, the number of attorneys working primarily on public interest work would double.

The deal would be that older lawyers accepting the second act path would put in fewer hours and get paid less. “The legal profession has a golden opportunity to do well by its members, itself, and society at large,” the paper’s authors write.

How to Get a Phased Retirement

What can you do as an employee if management hasn’t gotten the Unretirement message yet?

Speak up.

Now, I usually roll my eyes when someone recommends that employees should lobby management. Good luck with that, right? Yet there are good reasons for making the case in this circumstance.

For one thing, Unretirement is a hot topic among senior managers. For another, the suggestion isn’t coming out of left field. Many leading-edge companies are adopting benefit policies that encourage employees to phase into retirement. An appeal to corporate ego, by casually dropping some of those names (Intel, Herman Miller…), just might do the trick.

Other Benefits to Aid Your Transition

There are also a few corporate benefits worth exploiting that aren’t strictly geared toward Unretirement but could help you with your transition.

For example, take advantage of any financial support your employer offers for training or education that could position you for your next chapter.

Similarly, some companies have partnerships with nonprofits where employees can volunteer during sanctioned time. If you’re thinking about shifting from the for-profit to the nonprofit sector, pursue these volunteering opportunities to do good and make potentially valuable connections that could pay off for you in the future.

And, with today’s healthier job market, if you’re considering looking for a new position elsewhere, ask the hiring manager whether the employer offers Unretirement-type benefits such as phased retirement.

Resources That Can Help

Remember: you’re far from alone. Networks of like-minded boomers seeking their Unretirement are springing up all over the country. A major resource for researching options and contacts is Encore.org, which maintains a list of encore organizations around the country and sponsors the Encore Fellowship Networks. Other helpful resources include The Transition Network, ReServe, Retired Brains and Next Avenue.

Major work and life transitions are rarely easy, even with organizational support. Still, what’s exciting about all the phased-retirement experimentations is that they will evolve. Boomers are trying out different ideas, essentially seeing which Unretirement business and lifestyle models pay off, putting pressure on managements to create more flexibility into the workplace and economy. Managements, in turn, are trying to learn which benefit packages will boost the bottom line and improve the caliber of their workforce.

Better yet, Gen X’ers, Millennials and future generations of workers will learn from boomers’ Unretirement trial and error experiences. Younger generations will see that they’ll be able to alternate the rhythm of their work lives, perhaps phasing into retirement by joining organizations with a mission that touches their hearts. We’re just getting a glimpse into the possibilities today.

This article is adapted from Chris Farrell’s new book, Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life. Chris is senior economics contributor for American Public Media’s Marketplace. He writes about Unretirement twice a month, focusing on the personal finance and entrepreneurial start-up implications and the lessons people learn as they search for meaning and income. Tell him about your experiences so he can address your questions in future columns. Send your queries to him atcfarrell@mpr.org. His twitter address is@cfarrellecon.

More from NextAvenue.org:

What You Should Know About the 50+ Job Market

Dip Your Toe Into the Encore Career Waters

Phased Retirement: What You Need to Know

TIME Aging

You Asked: Can Computers Really Ruin My Eyes?

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

You spend most of the day staring at a computer, and your tablet or smartphone lull you to sleep at night. What does all that digital screen time do to your eyes?

From sore eyes and blurred vision to headaches, doctors have a catch-all term for any screen-induced discomfort: “Computer vision syndrome,” says Dr. Joshua Dunaief, an ophthalmologist and macular degeneration researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Dunaief says the specific causes of computer vision syndrome (CVS) are numerous, from improper reading glasses to an overly bright screen. But in most cases, any eye issues you’re experiencing stem from two root issues. Either your eyes are dried out, or they’ve become too fatigued to see properly.

“There are tiny muscles inside your eyeball that change the shape of your eye’s lens in order to bring whatever you’re seeing into focus,” Dunaief explains. After hours of sitting in front of your computer screen, those muscles can grow tired from focusing on a single fixed point. “In some cases, those muscles become so fatigued that your eyes can no longer focus,” Dunaief adds. He says research has also shown that when reading or working online, people tend to blink less. That can lead to dry eyes, tearing, or a burning sensation, he says.

While you’re not powerless to combat these problems (more on that in a minute), Dunaief says these issues are typically short-lived—meaning they go away within a few hours if you abandon your computer. But are there any serious, long-term dangers associated with digital screens?

“Possibly,” Dunaief says. “There’s evidence that bright light can damage your retinas irreversibly. That might mean staring at a computer screen that is very bright could damage your eyes.” He says there’s also some experimental evidence indicating regular exposure to computer-strength light could be damaging in similar ways.

Sitting too close to your computer screen (or holding your cell phone very near to your face) could also potentially lead to some vision problems, explains Dr. Joan Portello, an associate professor and researcher at the State University of New York School of Optometry. “A lot of people don’t realize this, but when you’re viewing something really close, that’s when your eyes are working the hardest—much harder than when you’re looking at something far away,” Portello explains.

Both she and Dunaief say there’s some evidence that students who spend many hours hunched over textbooks tend to become nearsighted. (Some Chinese schools have started employing metal desk bars to keep kids from lowering their heads too near to their study materials.) “Kids who play outside a lot tend to have better distance vision,” Portello adds. “And heavy computer use could turn out to cause some similar issues to this close textbook reading.” Like Dunaief, Portello says it’s too early to say how bad long-term computer use is for your eyes.

One thing is crystal clear: Computers aren’t going anywhere. So what can you do to safeguard your sight? First and foremost, proper eyewear is essential—especially if you’re older than 40, when reading small print tends to become troublesome for most people, Dunaief says. “Your reading glasses aren’t made for your computer,” he explains. Ditto for your regular spectacles. “An optometrist can fit you for glasses made specifically for computer use that will make things easier on your eyes.”

Dunaief also recommends dimming your computer screen and moving it as far away from your eyes as comfort and readability allow. Enlarging the font, closing blinds, and turning down the lights in your office to prevent glare can also help keep your eyes safe, he explains.

Portello says eye drops or artificial tears can help, as long as you consult with your eye doctor first about which type will work best for you. She also recommends sticking to the 20-20-20 rule. “Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds,” she advises. Why? This gives your eye muscles a rest and helps ward off fatigue and strain. Focusing on something even farther away is just as good, she adds. “And while you’re at it, try to blink as much as you can to keep your eyes moist.”

MONEY Aging

The One Thing You Need to Get Right for a Secure Retirement

walkable community
Getty Images

As Baby Boomers reach retirement, they need to make sure their homes and communities are age-friendly, a new report finds.

The biggest threat to your retirement security may be the home you live in, according to a study out today by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and AARP Foundation.

Your home and its location has an enormous—but often overlooked—impact on your quality of life and financial security in retirement, a problem that will only grow worse as the population of people ages 50 and older surges, according to the report. The number of people over 50 will climb to 133 million in the next 15 years, up more than 70% since 2000.

“Recognizing the implications of this profound demographic shift and taking immediate steps to address these issues is vital to our national standard of living,” says Chris Herbert, acting managing director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

For older adults, their home is typically their single largest expense. One-third of people 50 and older and nearly 40% of people over 80 pay more than one-third of their income for housing, including mortgage or rent. But even if your mortgage is paid off, routine expenses such as maintenance, insurance and property taxes account for a big chunk of your budget.

Despite the costs, most people want to remain in their homes as they age—73% of people 45 and older say they would like to stay in their current residence as long as possible, an AARP survey found. And 67% say they want to remain in the same community. Yet most homes aren’t equipped with basic adaptions that would allow people to remain there as they grow older, such as no-step entry ways or lever-style handles on doors and faucets for easy opening.

Another looming problem is lack of transportation. A majority of older adults live in car-dependent suburban or rural locations, which can isolate them from friends and family. By contrast, seniors in areas that allow them to walk to the store or grab a bus, as well as receive services if necessary, are far better off.

Younger Baby Boomers, those now in their 50s, are particularly at risk for being stuck in housing that won’t work as they age. They have lower incomes and more debt than previous generations—three-quarters of homeowners age 50-64 were still paying off mortgages in 2010, up 12 percentage points from 1992. Younger Baby Boomers are also less likely to be parents: 16% of the youngest baby boomers, age 50 to 59, don’t have children who can take care of them in their older years.

The Harvard/AAARP report calls for federal, state and community-based programs, such as expanding housing, transportation options and senior services, to tackle the problem. But government-based changes, especially ones that need substantial funding, will be slow to materialize.

Even if you’re healthy now, the odds that you’ll need some kind of care grow the longer you live. By age 85, more than two in three adults have at least one disability, including cognitive, mobility or vision problems. Here are several moves to consider now that will help you live comfortably in your later years:

Retrofit your home now. If you want to remain in your current home once you retire, adapt it so it is easier to get around. For example, if your house has a lot of stairs, add a master suite or a full bathroom to the main level so you can live on one floor. Do it while you have the income coming in to pay the costs, as well as the energy to oversee a renovation. You can find guides to age-friendly remodeling projects at AARP’s Livable Communities site and advice at The National Aging in Place Council.

Downsize to a more manageable space. A smaller home or condo will give you less lawn and home to care for, as well as lower your tax, maintenance and insurance costs. There are also many new options for retirement housing are popping up around the country. Co-housing, for example, is a standalone residence linked to a shared space, such as a yard or community room where you can cook and enjoy meals with other residents of the community. House sharing, where a friend, family member or tenant moves in and helps with chores and expenses, is another alternative to consider.

Move to a senior-friendly area. Though few people have traditionally moved in retirement, Baby Boomers are more willing to relocate. Nearly 30% of boomers plan to move when they retire, another AARP survey found. For many, relocating can be a smart way to cut expenses, especially if you move to an area with lower or no taxes and a cheaper cost of living. Look for places with good public transportation, plentiful senior services and walkable areas. For useful resources, check out the list of 31 places AARP is working with to create age-friendly places, a Milken Institute report on senior-friendly big and small cities, and MONEY’s Best Places to Retire.

Make sure you have a strong network. Whether you move or stay put, having a solid network of family and friends is invaluable. The Department of Health and Human Services provides a National Caregiver Support program through the Administration on Aging.

TIME Aging

Magnets Can Improve Your Memory

Magnet
Magnet Getty Images

A continuous jolt of magnetic pulses to the brain can improve memory a study shows

Targeting a particular part of the brain with magnetic pulses may be a non-invasive way to improve memory, a new published in the journal Science study shows.

Researchers from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine have discovered that by using a procedure called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)—which has shown potential as a non-pharmacological way to treat stubborn depression—they can change memory functions in the brains of adults. The initial goal of the study was to determine whether a memory-related brain network could be manipulated, and whether that manipulation could lead to improved recall.

The researchers hypothesized that remembering events requires several brain regions to work together with the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in memory. If there was a way to stimulate these regions, they could sync up better, which would improve memory and cognition. “[The research] was more of a hunch than I’d like to admit,” says study author Joel Voss, a assistant professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern, who has studied memory for years. “I am interested in this network, and whether we can actually improve this system.”

To test this, Voss and his team of researchers had 16 healthy adults between the ages of 21 and 40 undergo MRIs so the researchers could learn the participants’ brain structures. Then, the participants took a memory test which consisted of random associations between words and images that they were asked to remember. Then, the participants underwent brain stimulation with TMS for 20 minutes a day for five days in a row. TMS uses magnetic pulses to stimulate areas of the brain. It doesn’t typically hurt, and has been described by some as a light knocking sensation. The researchers stimulated the regions of the brain involved in the memory network.

Throughout the five days, the participants were tested on recall after the stimulation and underwent more MRIs. The participants also underwent a faked placebo procedure. The results showed that after about three days, the stimulation resulted in improved memory, and they got about 30% more associations right with stimulation than without. Not only that, but the MRIs showed that the brain regions became more synchronized by the TMS.

Though the improvement was relatively small, Voss says they want to test the efficacy in other populations—like those who are aging or those who are starting to deal with the first stages of memory loss. The effects may be more pronounced in an “unhealthy” person because a healthy person will have a more normal baseline to start from, and there’s not as much room for improvement.

TMS is FDA approved as a treatment for depression. The procedure is used to stimulate regions of the brain in a depressed person that are inactive and involved in mood regulation. As TIME covered in May, TMS is currently used when a patient doesn’t respond to antidepressants, but some researchers think it could be used as a first-line treatment. Voss has been involved in some research in the past involving TMS for depression, and it was looking at that MRI data that helped him piece the puzzle together for his hunch that the brain memory system could be stimulated with positive results.

The new research is still very experimental and only looked at a small population. But it’s still intriguing. “This is not a treatment that someone could ask their doctor for. It’s still in very early stages,” says Voss. “But I think it has more promise than anything developed yet.”

TIME Aging

Women Give Way More Elder Care to Aging Parents Than Men

It’s nearly half a century since men were shocked—shocked!—to learn that women weren’t entirely satisfied with being second-class citizens. Much has changed since that time, in politics, business, sports and other realms, but not necessarily so much at home, where women still do most of the housework and most of the childcare.

And now it turns out that spend far more time caring for their aging parents as well. That’s the dismal conclusion of a research study presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, in San Francisco. If you look at husbands and wives alone, says study author Angelina Grigoryeva, a doctoral student at Princeton University, things look equal. “Each spouse,” she says, “tends to take care of his or her own parents.”

But elder care is more complicated than that, since siblings are also part of the equation. And when you factor them in, the picture becomes very different: her analysis, based on her analysis of the data rich University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study, shows that daughters give an average of 12.3 hours of elder care per month, while sons provide just 5.6. “The results,” she says, “suggest that daughters try to provide as much care as they can, while sons only step in when there’s nobody else to do it.”

It’s not necessarily that men are selfish jerks. “The difference between elder care and housework,” says Grigoryeva, “is that the former is very hands-on, and often requires intimacy, so mothers might tend to prefer to be helped by their daughters rather than their sons.” Since women outlive men, on average, and there are more female than male elders, that could contribute to the skewed statistics.

Grigoryeva also notes another difference between elder care and other forms of domestic chores: “For housework and childcare,” she says, “the gender gap is still there, but it has narrowed over time.” That’s not what she finds with elder care. “This suggests that there may be some cultural inertia involved. People talk a lot the gap in reference to housework and child care, but not so much about caring for the aging.”

For the moment, at least, thanks to her new study, we are.

 

 

TIME Aging

Life Lessons From One of the World’s Oldest Men

Charlie White
Charlie White, photographed in 2008 at age 103. Doug Dalgleish

Charlie White, who died at 109, was able to separate the things he could control from the things that he could not

Correction appended: Sept. 5, 2014.

One sunny Sunday morning seven years ago, shortly after we moved into our new home in suburban Kansas City, I noticed that my neighbor across the street was busy in his driveway. Wearing only a pair of shorts, his barrel chest rippling, he was using a sponge and a garden hose to wash his girlfriend’s purple PT Cruiser. Did I feel a twinge of envy at all that this scene implied—the Saturday night romance; the love-interest perhaps dozing languorously inside as her man basked and flexed? No comment. With a glance at my own battered minivan, with its sticky cup holders and booster seats smelling faintly of baby puke, I went inside.

What made the scene especially memorable was that my neighbor was 102.

When you meet a man who is 102, you don’t expect to know him very long. Yet my friendship with Dr. Charles White—Charlie—wound up lasting seven years. Charlie died on Aug. 17, about an hour after he turned 109. That was long enough for him to leave a powerful mark on me.

Talking to Charlie was like falling into a history book. He was born in 1905, during the second Theodore Roosevelt administration. Buffalo Bill Cody and Chief Geronimo were still alive; John F. Kennedy and Laurence Olivier were not yet born. The Wright Brothers had made their first flight not 20 months earlier. Henry Ford had not yet started to mass-produce cars. Among the names the world did not yet know: Lenin, Mao, Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Louis Armstrong, Shirley Temple, Peter Pan.

As I mentioned, he was quite a physical specimen. In our first conversation, he bemoaned the fact that he had recently been compelled to give up golf, at 101. (It was several years before he surrendered his plans to resume the sport.) Even more amazing, though, was Charlie’s brain. He salted his conversations with details plucked effortlessly from yesterday’s newspaper and events of a century ago.

I asked him once if he could recall the old Newman Theater, where young Walt Disney premiered his first Laugh-O-Gram animations in 1921 before moving to Hollywood. Charlie answered with a vivid tour of every movie house in the city circa 1921—not just the Newman, but the place around the corner where his sister played the organ to accompany silent reels, and another place a few blocks from that, and the vacant lot where films were screened on hot summer nights before air conditioning. Then he painted a word-picture of Electric Park out south of town, at the end of the streetcar line. That was the place where Disney watched in awe as the nightly tableaux of human actors rose from fountains on hydraulic lifts each evening. With its manicured landscaping, nightly fireworks, and miniature train puffing around the perimeter, the amusement park of Charlie’s youth fed the imagination that would eventually create Disneyland.

The first doctor in Kansas City to specialize in anesthesiology, Charlie could discourse at length on the invention of modern medicine. He could tell you what it was like to be a general practitioner making house calls in the Depression, removing tonsils with picture wire. It was a hard life, making ends meet on late payments and barter—no health insurance back then. When science advanced beyond ether and brandy for surgery patients, he leapt at the chance to learn anesthesia at the Mayo Clinic. That was 1944. He later learned that his specialty had side benefits; Charlie confided to me that he rendered his kids unconscious for long drives across Kansas on their way to vacations in Colorado.

Charlie had a lot of laughs over the decades. He loved to tell about the time that he and his boyhood friend—later the controversial journalist Edgar Snow, friend of Mao—set off cross-country on dirt roads in a rattletrap 1919 automobile. When the car and their money gave out in California, the lads picked fruit to buy food and hopped freight trains to get home. He worked his way through medical school blowing the saxophone in a dance band. He heard a promising young Kansas City jazzman named Charlie Parker in a local club.

Another local guy, Harry S. Truman, once sent Charlie to South America to assist in a surgery on the president of Peru. Diplomatic immunity suited Charlie. He smuggled a pet monkey on the return trip, which lived in his home for years.

But his was a real life, which means that it wasn’t all laughs. Charlie knew grief from boyhood. His father, a minister of the Disciples of Christ, was killed in a freak elevator accident when Charlie was only eight. His mother took in boarders to pay the bills; some of them were doctors—that’s how Charlie found his future. Later, his first marriage was a trial of mental illness that ended in his wife’s suicide. As the decades passed, Charlie outlived his friends, his associates, even one of his children.

What this rich life taught him was a kind of inner peace, an equanimity reflecting the robust wisdom known as Stoicism. Charlie was able to separate the things he could control from the things that he could not, and he didn’t fret about matters beyond his power. One of his daughters told us once that she was complaining about an insufferable certain someone we all knew when her father told her to stop. You can’t change people like that, Charlie schooled her. If I let such people irritate me, I would have been dead a long time ago.

He taught me something even more useful in the last months of his life. By then, his superhuman body was finally wearing out. Charlie was nearly blind and mostly deaf, though his mind never faded. More and more of his charming and straightforward conversation has to do with his readiness for death. He wasn’t depressed about the oncoming end. Even less was he angry or fearful. He didn’t pine for days past nor pick scabs of regret and resentment.

Instead, it was as if Charlie had reached the end of a long day at the amusement park. The moments of delight and surprise, along with the moments of pain and fear, along with the moments of exhaustion and exhilaration, along with the moments of wonder and love—all culminated in the hazy afterglow of the closing fireworks and the dimming lights.

It was time to leave.

Charlie White lived the dream of countless men and women in my generation, the insufferable Baby Boomers. Hale and hearty well past 100, forever handsome with his rakish moustache and abundant hair, Charlie was prosperous, comfortable, ageless. And that dream led him to a graceful acceptance that … it ends.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all in favor of long and healthy lives. But there is something unseemly in the modern notion that science should aim to cure us of death. Charlie came closer than anyone else I’ve known to that vision of endless life. Close enough to decide that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. He saved me a good deal of fretting. Thanks, Charlie.

When I heard that he was gone, I thought of Emily Dickinson, for some reason: “Because I could not stop for Death—He kindly stopped for me.” I smiled to know that Charlie was glad to see him.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated who was president when White born. It was Theodore Roosevelt.

 

TIME Exercise/Fitness

Yoga Makes You a Quicker, Better Thinker, Study Finds

Woman doing yoga
Getty Images

Stretching and toning exercises did not change brain functioning

Practice hatha yoga consistently for eight weeks and you’re likely to think faster and better remember things. Stretch and do toning exercises and your brain functioning is likely to stay the same, according to a new eight-week study of more than 100 adults with ages ranging from 55 to 79.

“Participants in the yoga intervention group showed significant improvements in working memory capacity, which involves continually updating and manipulating information,” said Edward McAuley, a professor at the University of Illinois and co-author of the study, in a statement. “They were also able to perform the task at hand quickly and accurately, without getting distracted. These mental functions are relevant to our everyday functioning, as we multitask and plan our day-to-day activities.”

Controlling for other factors like age and gender, the study concluded that practicing yoga did lead to the improved brain functioning. Hatha yoga requires focus and meditation, which may have caused improved brain functioning in other tasks, according to study co-author and University of Illinois researcher Neha Gothe.

Still, researchers called for additional, longer-term studies to understand the brain mechanism fully.

[Quartz]

 

TIME Sex

Here’s What a 100-Year-Old Sex Therapist Thinks is Wrong With Sex Today

She says our hectic work lives are killing our sex lives

She was born before the invention of the stop sign, but sex therapist Shirley Zussman has some thoughts on ‘hooking up.’ “I don’t think it’s as frantic as casual sex was in the sixties,” she says, noting that modern ‘hooking up’ isn’t as exciting without the context of a sexual revolution. Besides, she adds: “In the long run, sexual pleasure is just one part of what men and women want from each other.”

At 100, Dr. Zussman is still a practicing sex therapist in New York City. In the 50-plus years since she began counseling people about all things related to sex, Dr. Zussman has witnessed everything from the legalization of the contraceptive birth control pill in 1960 (she started in sex therapy shortly afterwards) to the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s to the rise of internet porn in the new millennium.

She’s one of the oldest sex therapists in the world, but that might be the least extraordinary thing about her life and career. Born at the beginning of World War I, she graduated from Smith college in 1934, in the same class as Julia Child. Zussman was mentored through her graduate dissertation by Margaret Mead, and in the 1960s learned about sex therapy from Masters and Johnson, the inspiration for the Showtime series Masters of Sex. Her husband, a gynecologist, performed one of the first legal abortions in New York.

Here’s what she has to say about casual sex, cell phones, and how our hectic work lives are changing our attitudes toward sex.

On how being busy hurts your sex life:

“The use of time is very different in our society today. People are busy all the time. That was not true when I was growing up. At this stage of our development, we want to cover everything, we want to know everything, we want to do everything, and there’s also [our personal] economy which requires an immense amount of time and effort…There is a limit to how much energy and desire and time you can give to one person when there is all this pressure make more money, to be the CEO, to buy a summer house, people want more and more and more. Desire requires a certain amount of energy.

It’s a consequence of being exhausted…The most common problem I see is a lack of desire, a lack of interest. I had a patient say to me, ‘ I love my husband, I love making love to him, but I come home from work, I’ve been with people all day, I just want to crash.’”

On an increased openness about sex:

“I don’t think that the stigma around sex therapy exists like it was in the early years. People were ashamed they had to go to a psychiatrist or a social worker, because it means they needed help. Many people resist the idea that somebody needs to tell them how to have sex.”

“There were changes in the culture, too, there was the sexual revolution. There was the development of the pill, women were freer to let not worry so much about getting pregnant, there was every magazine and TV program talking about sex, there was every advertisement using sex to sell their product. There was an overwhelming immersion in the whole idea of getting more pleasure out of sex. It was not just about having babies.”

On what she learned from Masters and Johnson:

“They were recognizing that it was not all just glamorous and wonderful to be sexual, but that one almost had to learn to be a good partner…Their way of communicating was one of their greatest contributions, and that was not to talk so much about it, but to start with touching and caressing and stroking and kissing, and not rush for that golden bell in the middle of the carousel. It doesn’t start with the man having an erection and then you have intercourse, 1,2,3.”

And what she thinks of the TV show:

“I went to the preview party and met some of the actors in it. I was introduced to Michael Sheen, and he knew that I had known Masters and Johnson, so he said ‘tell me, how do you think I’m representing him?’ I said, ‘I think youre doing a pretty good job, but there’s a major difference.’ He said, ‘whats that?’ I said, ‘you’re handsome.’”

On her weirdest experience in 50 years of sex therapy:

“Someone called me and said he needed some help. He said ‘I’m a bad boy and I’m looking for someone for spankings.’ I had to make it clear that that’s not within my range of expertise.”

On the difference between casual sex in the 60s and ‘hooking up’ today:

“I think there’s a big change in the way we view casual sex. In the 60s it wasn’t just casual—it was frantic. It was something you expected to happen to you, you wanted it to happen, it was sort of a mad pursuit of sexual pleasure. But I think over time the disadvantages of that kind of behavior began to become apparent. There was the emotional crash– the intimacy was not there in the way that people need and want. There was a concern about sexual diseases, and then eventually AIDS made a major impact on calming that excitement.”

I think what was expected of casual sex – frantic sex– was something that didn’t deliver. Because in the long run, sexual pleasure is just one part of what men and women want from each other. They want intimacy, they want closeness, they want understanding, they want fun, and they want someone who really cares about them beyond just going to bed with them.”

I think hooking up includes some aspect of the kind of sex we were just talking about, but in a very much modified, and limited way. It’s not as frantic.”

On the popularity of oral sex:

“Oral sex was always part of the picture. I think primitive people learned how to get pleasure from oral sex, we just didn’t know about it. Oral sex was never talked about in your mother’s generation or my mother’s generation or my generation in the early days.”

On internet pornography:

“There’s nothing new about pornography. It’s been around since prehistoric days…I think that’s a healthy thing that people have the ability and the freedom to allow themselves to fantasize. But I have a number of patients who sit in front of the computer and watch pornography online, and somehow lose interest in seeking a partner. I see that a lot in some single men who don’t make the effort to go out in the world to face the issues, face the possible rejection—they satisfy their sexual needs sitting in front of the computer and masturbating.”

On living to be 100:

“We’ve been brainwashed to think that we all become couch potatoes when we’re old. You have to have expectations of yourself! You can make friends in many different ways, but you have to make the effort. You can’t say ‘oh , all my friends died,’ or ‘they’re sick,’ or ‘they don’t want to do what I want to do.’ You have to make an effort to find those new people. They don’t just come running to your door the way they might have when you were growing up.”

On the evils of cell phones:

“I’m shocked at the lack of connection between people because of iPhones. There is so much less of actual physical connection. There’s less touching, there’s less talking, there’s less holding, there’s less looking. People get pleasure from looking at each other. From a smile, and touching. We need touching to make us feel wanted and loved. That’s lacking so much in this generation. Lack of looking, lack of touching, lack of smiling. I don’t get it. I don’t get how people aren’t missing that, and don’t seem to think they are.”

 

 

 

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser