Time and again, health research offers up the same cruel paradox: You have to choose, in so many cases, between health and enjoyment, between more time on Earth and more time just doing whatever the hell you want. (“If you resolve to give up smoking, drinking, and loving, you don’t actually live longer,” the British writer Clement Freud once quipped. “It just seems longer.”) And researchers from Oregon State and Colorado State Universities just added to the pile with a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, arguing that a longer life and a longer working life go hand in hand — and that, conversely, early retirement may mean fewer years to enjoy it.
The authors looked at data from 2,956 people collected by the Health and Retirement Study between 1992 and 2010. All of the subjects retired sometime within that window; 1,934 of them were designated “healthy retirees,” meaning that health wasn’t a major factor in their decision to exit the workforce. Over the course of the study, 12 percent of the healthy retirees and 26 percent of the unhealthy retirees died (234 and 262 people, respectively). After controlling for the advantages of the healthy group — whose members were more likely to be wealthier and better educated — they found that an additional year of work lowered the risk of death for both groups, by 11 percent for the healthy subjects and 9 percent for the unhealthy ones.
Here’s the thing, though: Dig hard enough — and really, not very hard — and you’ll find research showing any number of conclusions about age of retirement and age of death. A 2013 study in the Journal of Health Economics laid out the case for each side: “Leaving employment may involve reduced stress and greater enjoyment of life, suggesting that early retirement enhances longevity,” the authors wrote. “However, it may also lead to reduced mental and physical activity, loss of social networks, and health-adverse habits, suggesting that later retirement may extend expected lifespan.”
That particular study, as it turned out, found no causal link between retirement age and longevity in either direction. Ditto with a 2007 study of older Israeli adults, once the researchers controlled for their reasons for leaving the workforce. A long-term study of former Shell Oil employees, meanwhile, found a higher mortality rate among people who retired at age 55 than those who called it quits at 60 or 65, and a 2001 paper written for the Social Security Administration found a link between early retirement among men and earlier death. On the other hand, in 2009, researchers analyzed data from a German health-insurance company to show that retiring early may actually confer an advantage. (They also gave their study a title worthy of a Bond-villain monologue: “Time to Retire – Time to Die?”)
More effective than pitting work against retirement, then, might be looking at the individual things that each can offer: social support, intellectual engagement, a sense of purpose. An employee who has a fulfilling job and a thriving social network at the office may find herself lonely and bored once she leaves it for good; conversely, a worker whose job is high on stress and low on reward may find new hobbies, interests, and friends once he no longer has to clock in each day.
In that regard, the authors of this latest study do offer some nuance: “The findings seem to indicate that people who remain active and engaged gain a benefit from that,” researcher Robert Stawski, a professor of health studies at Oregon State, said in a statement. “We see the relationship between work and longevity, but we don’t know everything about people’s lives, health, and well-being after retirement that could be influencing their longevity.”