The hidden key to healthy aging that we don't tell women about: financial security

Women are living longer lives than men — but do we know how to pay for them?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 23, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

Elderly woman at doctors examination (Getty Images/Halfpoint Images)
Elderly woman at doctors examination (Getty Images/Halfpoint Images)

"Look, we're all aging," Maddy Dychtwald tells me. "That's a process that starts in the womb, and goes all the way to the day you die."

The 74 year-old co-founder of the consulting organization Age Wave and author (with Kate Hanley) of “Ageless Aging: A Woman's Guide to Increasing Healthspan, Brainspan, and Lifespan” knows that’s a reality our culture has difficulty reckoning with. She admits she was advised not to put the word “aging” in the title of her book, “because people don't like it.” But that was what drew me to it — that it wasn’t yet another guide to “anti-aging” or “fighting aging.” Yet what really piqued my interest was the Dychtwald’s frank, pragmatic inclusion of financial planning in her guidance. 

A 2017 Groupon survey found that women spend up to $313 a month on their appearance — a habit that can cost $225,000 over an adult lifetime. And as someone who colors her hair and uses vitamin C serum, no judgment. But if we’re giving more of our paychecks to Sephora than our own savings and investments, it’s going to be a whole lot more challenging to keep feeling good in a few decades, when the doctor bills and prescriptions are adding up.

In acknowledging that while health is wealth, wealth is also health, Dychtwald gives realistic context to her other insights about fitness, food and connection. “When you have your financial house in order, it impacts your health in so many positive ways,” she writes.

I talked to Dychtwald recently about what women need to know about growing older as well as possible — and realistically, how much longer I keep eating cheese and bread.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You say early on in the book that men die quicker and get sicker than women. What does that mean, in terms of how we need to be thinking strategically as we enter these next phases of our lives?

The good news is that we women have won the longevity lottery. We live an average of six years longer than men. But there is a dark side. The dark side is that our healthspans and our brainspans both don't match our lifespans as well as men’s do. The average woman spends somewhere between 12 and 14 years in a cascade of poor health at the end of her life. Who wants to live like that? That's the reality, but there's more to the reality. We have the power, we have the agency to change it. The most recent science tells us that up to 90% of our health and well-being is literally within our control. It has to do with our lifestyle, and our environment. 

If you were to pick three things that would make the biggest difference, first, make sure you don't get diabetes. Of course, you have no control over type 1, but certainly type 2 diabetes and what many people call type 3 diabetes, which is cognitive decline. You want to do everything you can to avoid that. Believe it or not, getting taking alcohol out of your life would be a very positive step, because it has a negative effect on our brain cells in particular, which of course, we women ought to be really concerned about because we're twice as likely to get Alzheimer's disease. That's a really scary statistic. The third has to do with our environment, using great air for indoor air filters, especially in your bedroom. I was really surprised by that one. 

By the time things are starting to hurt, damage has been done. Patterns have been established; habits have been embedded. How much of that is reversible? We want to feel like it's never too late. But how much longer can I keep eating bread? How much longer can I have that glass of wine? 

You're asking a good question, and you're going to hate my answer. Because my answer is, it really depends. It depends on where your bar is, for one thing, and what you're trying to achieve for another. 

One of the researchers I interviewed, who is focused on Alzheimer's disease in France, said, “We believe in having a glass of wine with dinner, and it brings us a certain amount of joy. Let's not forget that joy really works in our epigenome as much as anything.” I do agree with that point of view.

So if you're out celebrating, have that glass of wine, absolutely do it. But keep in mind that drinking it every night is probably not what you want to do. If you're like going out and partying and having margaritas and three glasses of wine, that's probably not going to help your brain health, or your physical health. I'm not saying "moderation," because that's such a funky word. What I am saying is what I've adopted in my own life. I used to love having my glass of wine at the end of the day. It was a way of relaxing, and enjoying a few minutes with either friends or my husband. I've limited it to once a week. Now I find that it doesn't have the negative effects that it used to have on me, and you know what, it tastes better to me, too.

You talk about this idea of the different types of aging — biological, chronological, psychological. How do we own all three ages to maximize being our best selves?

"This is what 74 looks like. It's the good, the bad and the ugly."

Let's talk about all three. First there’s chronological aging, the number of birthdays you have. Own it. Younger people who, by the way, are more frightened about aging than older people are, need to see a good role model for them. We need to say, “Yeah, this is what 74 looks like. It's the good, the bad and the ugly. I may look like this on the outside, but who knows what I am on the inside?” 

Then there is the psychological or emotional aging. That's the positive side of aging. We know from studies that we've done at Age Wave and that have been done at Stanford, that wisdom, resilience, happiness, these actually increase with age, and our levels of anxiety actually go down, which is relatively amazing.

Then there's the biologic aging, and that's our physiologic makeup. There are things we can do about the cascade of potentially negative things as we get older — the aches and pains, or maybe we have a chronic condition like diabetes. We have this long life in front of us, and we want to make the most of it. We want to avoid the bad and embrace the good. I felt like I was able to reverse things by embracing a different diet, by changing my exercise a little bit. I adopted some affirmations, which I know, sounds really woo woo. I embraced it and I swear to God, it made a huge difference. 

It's not just about exercise or diet or sleep, although those are essential pieces of the puzzle. But it's also about community. It's also about purpose, and our positive attitudes, and even our finances,. These things all work together to try to help us live better, longer. The good news, which I think could really help women, is that there are a lot of different levers we can pull, especially to get started. 

The financial aspect drew me to this book. When we talk about women's health outcomes, one of the things that we're not always factoring is that we earn less money, we have less money. We may be spending our later years taking care of our aging parents and aging spouses, experiencing high levels of stress and lower economic stability. We're experiencing the financial precarity of widowhood. These things are a key to our health outcomes that can feel overwhelming and scary. What do we need to know about the correlation between our financial health and our longevity? 

I think we need to go back to the word wealth, because it's got a bad rap. People think of it and they think of entitlement, but the word wealth is really from the word for well-being. We need to think about our financial well-being as part of our overall well-being. 

If you're worried about money and you have chronic stress going on, that creates higher levels of cortisol. We know that can manifest as disease and often does. Then you're finding yourself with maybe diabetes, maybe it's the aches and pains of arthritis, and having to access the healthcare system. There's this misconception that if I'm on Medicare, everything's taken care of. Most of us are beginning to recognize the fact that that just isn't the case at all, not one bit.

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And the cost of health care for women is far higher than it is for men in retirement. That just adds to the challenge, let alone the fact that women are doing 80% of all caregiving activities, whether it be for children, a spouse, partner, parents, or even grandparents — and we're also often the ones who are digging into our own pockets to pay for it. 

Not only are we doing that, but we oftentimes retire earlier, so that we can take care of a spouse, partner or parent. Certainly we take time out of the workforce to care for our children. We miss out on promotions, we miss out on salary increases, we miss out on our Social Security going up, 401k going up. It's a conversation that women need to be having with each other and, if they're married or in a partnership, their partners.

One of the studies we did at Age Wave found that women were more comfortable talking about their own death than talking about money. We don't talk about how much we make. We don't talk about how we invest our money. We don't talk about that financial advisor that we love or hate. These are not things that we have conversations about, and we need to we need to open up that door. I feel very strongly about this.

The wealth gap in this country is getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and a certain level of financial affluence is not accessible to most of us. But we need to connect the dots. I can do yoga every morning, and I can meditate every night, and if I am not planning for my financial future to whatever extent is possible, given my income, then I'm still going to be out of luck. 

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The stress that it causes is just amazingly outrageous. Frankly we women have some barriers to overcome that are just built into the system. It's very unfortunate, but it's also very true. If a man and a woman have the same job, but have a pay gap, and they go into the workforce at the same moment and they leave say moment, don't take out time to do any kind of caregiving, it can be over half a million dollars of difference. Now, that's a significant number. 

That's the years of your retirement. That’s years of your elder care. So how do we incorporate these changes in a way that feels good? That hump of learning adaptability creating good habits is hard. And it's hard when we're in the middle of caring for our older parents, trying to hang on to our jobs, facing ageism all around us. 

There's this intention action gap that exists. We kind of know some of the right things to do, but not all of them. I think that we need to try to begin by adding in things that bring us joy. For example, sleep is not my superpower, although I've gotten much better at it lately. The first thing that I tried was to recognize the fact that what I did in the morning was as important in my sleep as what I did at night. So how hard is it to face the sun first thing in the morning?

You don't even have to go outside, just raise your shades. And as silly as it may sound, it made me sleep better. And by sleeping better, I felt like I had more energy during the day, and I was happy to first get together with friends and maybe even go for a hike with them, which was fantastic. What I found was there was a cascading positive effect. I think we need to count on our bodies and our minds being in sync to our joy. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Ageless Aging Aging Financial Security Health Interview Maddy Dychtwald Women's Health