Healthiest Places to Retire

Cecily O'Connor

Health-conscious boomers shopping for a retirement home may want to consider a college town - Ann Arbor, Mich.

Outdoor dining in Ann Arbor. (AAVCB)

The city is home to one of the world's largest university medical centers, which helped to make it AARP Magazine's No. 1 pick for the healthiest spot in which to live and retire.  Ranking second is sunny Honolulu, where the vast majority of residents have health insurance. Fargo, N.D. rounded out the top five, earning props for its superior air quality. 

Three different cities with three different advantages. That serves as a reminder that what's attractive to one person may not meet the needs of another. has its own ideas, based on its commitment to living "the whole life," but also wants to share AARP's thinking.

"The cities we chose are ahead of the healthy living curve with access to healthcare facilities, numerous options for exercise, activities, volunteerism, and a culture that supports vitality," said AARP editor Nancy Graham.

The organization evaluated more than 20 measures of "vitality" to create its list, and incorporated a community's physical aspects such as clean air and water, as well as the health and habits of people who live there. The criteria included: number of doctors in the area, availability of healthcare, diagnosis of health problems and healthy eating habits. "Quality of life" measures like housing affordability, the local economy, educational resources, crime, climate, recreation also were taken into account. 

All of those features are becoming increasingly important to boomers, many of whom are starting to think about where they'll settle in retirement long before their work life winds down. As we've reported here before, some will choose to stay put, or naturally gravitate to areas near their family. While a city's emphasis on healthcare is important, boomers also are placing a premium access to good public transportation and cultural activities.

Top Cities
Here is AARP's list, followed by comments and suggestions of other cities we think boomers might like. 

  • Ann Arbor, Mich.: bring your sweat pants because 86 percent of residents exercise daily here. Wait times in the doctor's office may be less, too, as the city boasts 580 physicians per 100,000 people, compared to the US average of 223. Ann Arbor also is home to The University of Michigan Health Center, one of the largest university medical centers in the world and creator of the first human genetics program in the US in 1940. Sounds ideal if you like cold and snowy weather. The winters could be brutal. Still, it's a great outdoor city in the summer.
  • Honolulu: The warm, beach climate makes it hard to skip exercise. Residents here spend more time exercising than almost any other city surveyed. Locals also have one of the highest rates of life expectancy among surveyed cities - an outcome that could be helped by the fact that 95 percent of residents are covered by health insurance.
    : Don't pack you Aloha shirt just yet. Honolulu is a huge tourist hub with tourist prices, and for some, that's reason enough to stay on the mainland. And it may not be ideal for anyone worried about skin cancer risks.
  • Madison, Wisc.: Residents here have low rates of many chronic boomer ailments, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Still, AARP contends "you'll find big city advantages with a small-town feel." That's because Madison has an extensive bus system, numerous bike trails and a wide-range of sporting activities.
    : Average overnight lows in January hover near 9 degrees. Need we say more?
  • Santa Fe, NM: Breathe the fresh air. The city ranked No. 2 in the US in air quality by the American Lung Association. The rates of diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol are among the lowest in the country, in part, because of a city-funded health campaign aimed at older residents.
    : Artsy and healthy, for sure. But watch the sun exposure. And if you want a change of pace, it's a long haul.
  • Fargo, ND: If you have poor dental hygiene, make an appointment with the dentist upon arrival. Fargo ranks ninth in the nation for regular flossing and brushing. It also has one of the best air-quality-index scores, uses biodiesel fuel to power its transit buses, and it has made a serious commitment to incorporate methane-powered generators, solar panels, and wind generators into the city's infrastructure.
    : It also has mosquitos and cold, cold winters. And despite its fame in the movie of the same name, it's not exactly a cultural mecca.
  • Boulder, Colo.: Home to more than 130 miles and 45,000 acres of open space and pristine wilderness at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the city is a melting pot of environment and health-conscious residents. It is one of the nation's healthiest cities with extremely low rates of smoking and obesity.
    : If you're not an outdoor enthusiast, even the "not-to snowy" winters will make a difference. We also like Boulder for its proximity to Denver's cultural and medical advantages.
  • Charlottesville, Va.: The one-time home of Thomas Jefferson ranks in the top 10 cities for family-practice doctors, oncologists and cardiologists. It ranks fourth among U.S. metropolitan areas in the number of physicians per capita.
    : How did this city make the list? Whose brother is on the chamber of commerce? There are good doctors in a lot of cities.
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul: Residents rank among the top 10 in the country for share of residents who exercise regularly. Minnesota also is ranked the No. 1 state in the nation for the overall quality of its healthcare by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
    : If you're a golfer, you'll be in good company. Minneapolis has more golfers per capita than any other city in the country. But bring red balls to play in the harsh winters. Still, it's hard to beat the Minnie Apple in the summer.
  • San Francisco Bay Area: With a moderate climate and access to year-round access to outdoor sports, residents here are among the least likely to be overweight and smoke. Last year, the city of San Francisco launched Healthy San Francisco, an initiative that offers free or subsidized health care to uninsured residents.
    : This is a RedwoodAge "best place," too. We also note great dining, lots of art and the city's multicultural population as advantages. But housing prices are very high. Check nearby Alameda and Solano counties for lower house prices and less of that cold San Francisco fog.
  • Naples-Marco Island, Fla.: Residents received very high scores for regular exercise, healthy eating and not smoking; the area has one of the lowest cancer mortality rates in the country; Naples-Marco Island has the second most golf holes per capita in the country.
    : Sure the average yearly temperature is 75 degrees, but your neighbors could be alligators. Still, Florida has to be the retirement capital of the East Coast.

    Longevity Counts
    AARP's report also examined which cities excelled in longevity, vitality and wellness. Ames, Iowa was the city with the longest life expectancy, 81.02 years, followed by Naples-Marco Island with 80.97 years. Ames, Iowa, also topped the list of cities with the highest percentage of people able to afford healthcare, at 97.9 percent and Johnston, Penn., was second on that list at 96.2 percent. 

    Boulder topped the list as the skinniest city, with an average body mass index of 24.94, followed by Santa Fe, with an average BMI of 25.50. Of cities with the greenest commuters, Ithaca, NY, was highest on the list with 16.88 percent of residents biking or walking to work. Faves
    Speaking of biking, Portland, Ore., which has become an environmentally progressive city, offers resident miles of bike lines, as well as abundant public transportation options. The city was not on AARP's list, but given its walkable downtown and relatively affordable real estate, thought it was worth a mention. The same goes for Seattle, another city that emphasizes healthy living. The wet winters in both these cities could be a welcome change for adults used to snowy climates

    Meanwhile, other locations like Las Vegas, Austin, Atlanta and Dallas have morphed into so-called Sun Belt cities, attracting pre-retirees in growing number due to a pleasant climate and relatively cheap housing. Each has advantages - Las Vegas if you like to play, Austin if you like the music scene, Dallas has some great museums and Atlanta's remarkably cosmopolitan while maintaining southern charm. Pittsburgh also is worth a mention if you're a boomer in the mood for love. That's because boomer marriage rates in the Steel City are higher than in some other metro areas in the US.

    For the sake of comparison, Sperling's Best Places, a website that allows people to enter their personal preferences to find their best place, lists on its home page New York, San Diego, Chicago, Phoenix, Atlanta, Portland, Austin, Charlotte, Seattle and Denver among the most popular places people search when seeking a spot to live and retire.