Retirement Might Not Agree with Your Health

By Richard Asa @RickAsa
September 09, 2021

Are you better off continuing to work – or not?

Before you dust off your golf clubs or buy that painting easel you’ve always wanted, you might want to consider a study that says your health may suffer in retirement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study of 83,000 Americans age 65 and over found that unemployment or being retired “was associated with the greatest risk of poor health across all health status measures.” That included controls for those who smoked, were obese, and other predictors of health.


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In essence, the researchers found that people who can continue to work should continue to work because there are specific benefits. Blue-collar workers, for example, had the lowest risk of chronic conditions that limited their mobility and functioning.

The authors theorized that those who continue to work past retirement age engaged in more lifelong physical activity because of their jobs than others who retire.

Service workers had the lowest risk of developing conditions that limited their functioning because of the activity involved specific to their jobs.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you will have poorer health in retirement. The authors acknowledge that you can’t know with certainty whether retiring caused your health to worsen or whether continuing to work maintained your health.

They can say with certainty that among the population they studied, which was large and cross-sectional, “employed older adults had better health outcomes than unemployed older adults.”

They added "older adults who continue working tend to be much healthier across multiple health outcomes, but perhaps providing better workplace accommodations for older adults with functional limitations would allow more of them to join the ranks of their healthier peers.”

In other words, keep them working as long as they want to work by making it possible for them to continue working. The study also implies you should not be forced to retire based on a set age.

In fact, other studies have found that many people who have retired do it out of necessity, not choice. Some do it at age 62 because they can collect full Social Security benefits if the reason for retirement is disability.

That begs the question of whether they would remain in better health if they continued working, or whether their work contributed to the disability in the first place. It’s a chicken or the egg head-scratcher.

The average retirement age in the United States is 64 for men and 62 for women, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. But, the retirement age for both has steadily increased since the 1970s.

"Work is what we do in this world — and not working is a kind of exile, a form of social irrelevance. For better or worse, it is the way most of us find meaning in our world,"  Ken Eisold, PhD, said in a self-penned Psychology Today article.

In his article, Eisold noted that a study “strongly suggests what many of us have suspected – or feared: `the earlier people retire, the more quickly their memories decline.’”

“We don’t know exactly what to make of this finding,” he said, highlighting the chicken and the egg. “Maybe it's a statistical anomaly, stemming from the fact that many who retire early do so because they feel their mental powers are fading.”

Maybe retirees get more depressed, he said, or watch too much TV. “On the other hand, if work is effective at maintaining cognitive ability, what is it about work that does the trick?”

He suggests it may be the “social engagement and interaction of work,” a so-called “aerobic component.” Maybe this aerobic component works for you physically as well, the CDC study suggests.

There are many happy and healthy retirees who savor the time to travel and do whatever else they want when they want to do it. But the CDC study suggests that if you haven’t or can’t plan for it physically, emotionally, and economically, you could be headed toward a downward spiral.

Another study suggested that retirement increases the likelihood of clinical depression by 40 percent, and the risk of having at least one diagnosed physical condition by about 60 percent.

One study, however, concluded that “the retirement effect on health is beneficial and significant” because retirees have more time to spend on maintaining their physical and mental health, or overall well-being.

In an interview with Next Avenue, however, the author acknowledged that his conclusion was “in some sense counterintuitive” because common wisdom is that “people retire and kind of lose their will to go on.”  

But his conclusion makes sense because retirees are out of the day-to-day work grind that can be so debilitating. That, in turn, makes it easier for them to quit bad habits (such as smoking) and be more physically active, said author Michael Insler, an assistant professor of economics at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Obviously, you can easily find information that will support either argument. But both arguments have validity. Insler said he didn’t really investigate job satisfaction, so he allows that could be part of your health maintenance equation.

Other researchers used the same data Insler used for their study and said that retirement worsened health and well-being. The fact that the same data yielded divergent results highlights how complex and many-sided the debate is.

There’s an old saying that the truth is always somewhere in the middle – and highly personal. Whatever you believe, though, it’s an issue worth some serious thought. 


September 09, 2021

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN