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Trevor Hancock: Early retirement can lead to an earlier death

In my past two columns, I suggested the standard retirement age of 65, based on policies dating back to the early 20th century, might be too low.

In my past two columns, I suggested the standard retirement age of 65, based on policies dating back to the early 20th century, might be too low. Moreover, an increasing dependency ratio as the baby boomers retire will place a burden on the working-age population that could be lessened if we retired later.

But I also suggested that the age of retirement should be more flexible. In a just society, should we not all enjoy roughly the same length of retirement?

Yet people with lower levels of education and income — who are much more likely to work in more physically challenging and/or less mentally stimulating jobs — have lower life expectancy. So they should retire sooner, while those with higher levels of education and income and more healthy working conditions should retire later.

All this presupposes that retirement is good for health. But what if retirement made you less healthy or resulted in an earlier death? Would it still be such a good idea? The evidence on the health impacts of retirement, while inconsistent, tends to show that retirement is bad for health.

For example, a study published in March 2016 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health suggests it is not so healthy. Researchers at Oregon State University followed almost 3,000 people in the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement study, from 1992 until 2010, by which time they were all retired.

Almost two-thirds of them were healthy at the time of retirement, meaning they did not retire for health reasons. Almost 500 of them died during the study, roughly equally divided between the healthy and the unhealthy retirees.

The researchers found that each additional year spent working was associated with an 11 per cent decline in death among healthy retirees, and a nine per cent decline even among the unhealthy ones. This held true even after adjusting for a wide range of socio-demographic, lifestyle and health factors.

Their rather blunt conclusion is: “Early retirement may be a risk factor for mortality, and prolonged working life may provide survival benefits among U.S. adults.”

This was supported by a study from Sweden published in 2012 in the European Journal of Epidemiology. It noted that studies from Germany, Britain, Denmark, the U.S. and Greece have all shown that “early retirement is associated with considerably higher mortality in men.” But often the studies have not ruled out the effect of pre-existing poor health that might have led to retirement, nor have many of them looked at women.

In this study, the researchers looked at all retirements of healthy people in Sweden from 1991 to 2007. After excluding all those who also had a history of inpatient care, they found a 21 per cent increase in risk of death among women who were retired. Among men, there was no increased risk among retired men as a whole, but those who retired early had a 56 per cent increase in risk of death.

On the other hand, a 2013 Dutch study found that among civil servants who took advantage of an early-retirement package, there was a decrease of 2.5 per cent in the probability of dying within five years. But presumably, this was a group who were not happy at work and wanted out, and the effect is much smaller than those reported in the studies that show an increased risk during retirement.

So what to do? The best advice is probably that if work is making you physically or psychologically unhealthy, get out if you can. If not, keep working as long as you reasonably think you can. But what seems to matter a lot is how one approaches retirement.

A study of 80-year-olds as part of the Harvard-based Study of Adult Development asked them what made for healthy retirement. Four themes stood out: Establish a new social network, play, be creative and keep learning. It seems that if you have a healthy attitude and way of life, you will do better in retirement.

But it’s easier said than done. The trick is how to help people develop those attitudes and skills throughout their lives, so they can have a healthy life in retirement, whenever that happens. But that’s a topic for another day.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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