When It's Healthier Not to Retire
What recent studies say and what doctors recommend
Ken Lopaty, 87, has spent the last 55 years working at McDonalds; currently he owns seven franchises across Los Angeles. Before that, he worked a number of jobs in Chicago, starting with selling women’s magazines door-to-door at age 10. He’s been working ever since, with no plans to stop.
Lopaty says that, working, for him, is not only about the physical, but “the mental.” He notes: “It has helped me stay healthy by continuing to exercise my brain every single day. Most people I know who have retired have truly aged much quicker because they don’t have many things that fill their time.” Lopaty also thinks not retiring has helped his marriage “tremendously,” by being out of the house during the day.
Actually, his wife of 64 years, Barbara, loves the fact that Lopaty continues to work, since he’s as passionate about it today as he was when Ray Kroc (that’s right, The Founder) showed up at his door in 1957.
To Retire or Not to Retire
Lopaty’s story raises the inevitable question: Is it healthier not to retire?
The answer: possibly.
There have been various studies on the subject in recent years, with mixed results.
A 2017 study from economists in the Netherlands found that Dutch civil servants who took early retirement were 2.6 percentage points less likely to die over the next few years than those who didn’t retire early.
But a new study from economics professors at Cornell University and the University of Melbourne, cited in The Wall Street Journal, found that a significant increase in mortality in the U.S. starts at age 62, when Americans can start claiming Social Security and, ostensibly, retire. The researchers found that 10 percent of men retire in the month they turn 62 and believe the deaths were concentrated among those men, partly because they became more sedentary and some increased their smoking rate.
And other studies showed that retirement raised the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and mortality.
Retiring After 65 and Living Longer
A landmark study in 2016 from Oregon State University researchers, however, determined that healthy people who retired a year beyond 65 had an 11 percent lower chance of dying compared to those who retired earlier.
Dr. Donald O. Mack, a family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said the study’s authors were careful to first divide workers into healthy and unhealthy groups to try to control for those who retired for health reasons.
He concedes that classifying yourself as health or unhealthy is subjective. “Some workers may still feel healthy but have sensed some non-specific declines that prompt them to retire earlier than others,” he says. Also, he notes, “people who are still working after age 65 are generally in less physically-demanding jobs.” Nevertheless, he adds, the study found they are “healthier emotionally and physically than their counterparts who retired.”
The Risks of Adjusting to Retirement
Something else to consider, says Mack: “forced” retirement or unemployment is challenging at any age, and the risks of adjustment issues are higher than for those who choose to retire.
“For those who choose to retire,” Mack advises, “it is important to plan for the adjustment financially, but also emotionally,” taking into account which activities will give you purpose and gratification.
Another reason to continue working: Dr. Susan Besser, a primary care provider specializing in family medicine in Overlea, Md., says people who retire become more isolated, to some degree. But socialization, she says, is very important to mental and emotional health.
Retirees “don’t have the daily social interactions, not to mention the daily routine to help with mental emotional stability,” she says. “Also, continuing to work increases economic independence, which is also important.”
Finding a Job You're Healthy Enough to Do
This presumes, of course, that your health is good enough to let you continue working. In order to continue employment and delay retirement, you may need to try to switch jobs to something more accommodating.
A job with lots of lifting and carrying might no longer be the right job if you have severe arthritis. A desk job with some walking, conversely, might help you stay active and improve joint mobility. Similarly, says Besser, “if you work the night shift, that can cause stress on the body, which can lead to poor blood pressure control or poor diabetes control. Working a high-stress job could also cause emotional overload and physical symptoms, so a different job might be better.”
However, working can also be good for some conditions — if you are an overweight diabetic and your doctor has recommended exercise, a job where you have to walk around might help you lose weight and make your diabetes more manageable.
Dr. Anne B. Newman, director of Pitt’s Center for Aging and Population Health, says education also plays a role in whether working longer could let you live longer. A high level of education, she says, is strongly related to longevity. That’s one reason professors tend to live longer and to work longer.
Worsening Diabetes in Retirement
Besser says she has seen a marked difference — and not for the better — between her patients who retire young and those who don’t.
In retirement, “patients with diabetes may have worsening diabetes because after retiring they aren’t as motivated to stay active and eat out of boredom — so their sugar is harder to control,” she says. Some people who are pre-diabetic before retiring can develop actual diabetes in retirement “because they are bored and eat more or are just not as active as before.”
Also, says Besser, in retirement, “some patients have worsening joint aches and pains and can develop arthritis — or at least the underlying arthritis may worsen — this is likely due to decreased physical activity.”
New Health Problems Due to Retiring
Retirement can lead to new health problems, too, Besser notes.
“A very common one is depression. People who retire early without something else to keep them busy tend to become depressed. They also may have decline in cognitive function because they no longer have any mental stimulation. Many of my patients who retire young lose their vitality, the gusto for life that they had while working,” she says.
Talk to Your Doctor
Besser advises talking with your doctor about the pros and cons for your health about when to retire. Your physician may wind up prescribing that you continue working.
“Remember, you are trying to stay as healthy as long as possible,” says Besser. “And if a work ‘prescription’ is another part of keeping you healthy, along with good diet, regular exercise, good sleep habits, social interactions and following your doctor’s medical advice about your health conditions, then off to work you should go.”