If we are what we eat, retirees are in trouble.
That’s the conclusion I draw from a fascinating—and sobering—new study that recently was circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Entitled “Changes in Nutrient Intake at Retirement,” its authors are two economics professors: Melvin Stephens Jr. of the University of Michigan and Desmond Toohey of the University of Delaware.
The professors found that the average male, upon retirement, experiences a dramatic reduction in nutrition intake. Total caloric intake, for example; it falls by an average of 19% compared to what it was prior to retirement. Protein intake fell by 17%. Many other markers of nutrition experienced declines of similar magnitude, as you can see from the accompanying chart.
This study represents the most dramatic proof yet of how big a retirement savings crisis we have in this country. While in previous years there had been plenty of hints that this crisis was big, it was always possible to interpret the data in ways suggesting the crisis was being exaggerated.
For example, while a number of earlier studies had found that expenditures on food typically fall after retirement, it was possible to provide a benign explanation: Retirees might be spending more time shopping carefully and cooking at home rather than eating out, for example, in which case the reduction in food expenditures wouldn’t have to translate into reduced nutrient intake.
This new study ruled out this possibility by focusing on a number of nationwide food intake surveys. The study focused on male heads of households, Professor Toohey explained in an interview, since historically they have typically been the primary bread winners. It therefore is their retirement that is likely to have the biggest impact on total family spending on nutrition. Sure enough, they found that their retirement translates into significant reductions in nutrient intakes.
The authors conclude that their results show that “many households do not have adequate retirement savings… and both lack financial literacy and fail to plan for retirement.”
This new study also provides insight into the findings of other recent research that found retirement is associated with increased mortality. I devoted a recent Retirement Weekly column one such study. The authors of that earlier study focused more on the statistics showing the increased mortality rather than studying the underlying reasons, speculating that they could be caused by any of a number of factors—such as the increased sedentariness of retirees to a reduction in the number of retirees’ social interactions.
This new research adds an additional, and more direct, reason: Many retirees after they retire can’t afford to eat as much as they should. The new study thus provides a direct link between adequate income and your life expectancy.
This puts retirement planning in an entirely new, and more urgent, context. Many retirees worry about outliving their money, for example. This new study suggests that, instead, the bigger worry may not be outliving one’s money but dying sooner because of too little money.
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