The connection between retiring early and living longer

Research shows a link, but it isn't retirement itself that leads to a longer life, but what you do in retirement.

  • By Austin Frakt,
  • The New York Times News Service
  • Getting Ready to Retire
  • Health Care & Wellness
  • Getting Ready to Retire
  • Health Care & Wellness
  • Getting Ready to Retire
  • Health Care & Wellness
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You may not need another reason to retire early, but I'll give you one anyway: It could lengthen your life.

That's the thrust from various research in recent years, and also from a 2017 study in the journal Health Economics.

In that study, Hans Bloemen, Stefan Hochguertel and Jochem Zweerink — all economists from the Netherlands — looked at what happened when, in 2005, some Dutch civil servants could temporarily qualify for early retirement.

Only those at least 55 years old and with at least 10 years of continuous service with contributions to the public sector pension fund were eligible. Men responding to the early retirement offer were 2.6 percentage points less likely to die over the next five years than those who did not retire early. (Too few women met the early retirement eligibility criteria to be included in the study.)

The Dutch study echoes those from other countries. An analysis in the United States found about seven years of retirement can be as good for health as reducing the chance of getting a serious disease (like diabetes or heart conditions) by 20 percent. Positive health effects of retirement have also been found by studies using data from Israel, England, Germany and other European countries.

That retirement promotes health and prolongs life isn't obvious. After all, work provides income and, for some, health insurance — both helpful for maintenance of well-being. It also can provide purpose and camaraderie. Evidence is mounting that loneliness and social isolation are linked to illness, cognitive decline and death. One study of American retirees found them less likely to be lonely or depressed.

Some work involves physical activity, which can help keep bodies healthy, too. One study found that those accustomed to getting exercise through physically strenuous jobs — like construction or landscaping — are more likely to become obese upon retirement than those who don't have such jobs.

But for many people, work can be stressful, take time away from exercise, and promote bad habits like excessive alcohol consumption. The Dutch study found that half of the mortality reduction associated with retirement is attributable to cardiovascular and digestive system diseases. Obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption, as well as reduced exercise and stress, can all contribute to these. If you drive to work, that's another life-threatening risk.

Teasing out the causal effect of retirement on health isn't straightforward. After all, some people retire precisely because they are in declining health. Without careful analysis, you might conclude that retirement causes poor health and an earlier death.

Indeed, some studies find retirement associated with worse health and reduced longevity. One found that retirement raises the risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality. Another found higher risks of cardiovascular disease and cancer. But another such study found that poor health outcomes were more pronounced among retirees who were unmarried, reduced their physical activity, and had less social interaction. In other words, it isn't retirement itself that affects health, but what you do in retirement.

Keeping active and developing healthy habits are good ideas. Physical activity is associated with prevention of disease and reduced mortality in older people. Lack of time, perhaps due to work, is a chief reason many adults don't exercise. Retirees are more likely to exercise, and those who do are better off for it. One study found retirees get more sleep and spend more time doing household work and gardening — both of which are more active than a desk job. Another study found that better health in retirement may be because of the reduced likelihood of smoking.

The age for full Social Security retirement benefits has been on a schedule, increasing gradually from 65 to 67 (67 for those born in 1960 and later). Those working longer as a result are in worse health than earlier cohorts. To retire, they'd have to rely more on their own savings.

But according to a recent national survey by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, many Americans don't have the resources to retire. About 20 percent of Americans over 44 years old have no retirement savings. Half of Americans are at risk of being unable to maintain their standard of living in retirement. If you want to retire, whether for health benefits or otherwise, you'll have to start preparing when you're still young.

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