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Retirees Can't Get Real About Health Care Costs

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Uh-oh.

Not only are U.S. health consumers lax in their effort to go see the doctor, and in taking steps to improve their physical well-being, they also consistently underestimate how much money they'll need for decent health care in retirement.

Hey, maybe Americans think they'll live forever, or that Uncle Sam will bail them out if they're waylaid by illness or injury.

Whatever the reason, American adults -- especially retirees -- really need to get their act together on health care issues, or disaster may well await them in retirement.

Take a look at these numbers from Aviva USA and the Mayo Clinic and their most recent Wellness For Life study, released this week:
  • Roughly one in six U.S. adults visit their doctor less than once every two years, a huge health care "no-no," according to the Mayo Clinic.
  • One in eight U.S. adults view themselves as "currently unhealthy," with 30% categorized as obese.
  • About 50% of Americans say they have gained weight since 2002, as opposed to 16% who say their weight has declined.

The data don't get rosier when you factor finances into the health care equation, particularly for Americans of retirement age. The survey estimates that U.S. retirees will need to shell out 30% of their income for health care expenses in their so-called Golden Years.

But retirees and near-retirees just don't see it that way. According to Aviva and the Mayo Clinic, 90% of American adults expect to spend less than 20% of their annual income on health care costs, while 70% say they will spend 10% of their annual income or less.

This, the groups say, is a recipe for disaster for Americans already struggling to save enough after their working years.

"These are staggering discrepancies between people's perception and current reality," warns Philip Hagen, a medical director at the Mayo Clinic. "This survey revealed most Americans are unrealistic about some of the repercussions of lifestyle choices and aging -- specifically, that as you get older, your health is apt to decline and your need for health care increases. That need for additional care also means there will be additional costs."

Hagen says Americans need to act now to get their health care act together. "Getting regular preventive care and improving lifestyle habits to decrease health risks can help reduce these expenses and improve health and quality of life," he adds.

If it were only that easy.

The study says only 40% of Americans expect to have enough cash for medical expenses in retirement, a chilling figure considering heath care costs are widely expected to rise in the coming decades.

Aviva and the Mayo Clinic urge Americans to stash away more cash for retirement health care needs and to "rethink" what role health care expenses play in retirement panning.

"Wellness" is the key, the study says. Oh, and $100,000 or more added to your retirement fund just for health care costs won't hurt either.

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