Can this life change make you live longer?

Alistair Gardiner | May 17, 2021

Over the years, research has produced mixed findings on whether retiring from professional life is beneficial or detrimental to our health. Does retirement promote longevity and provide cognitive and mental health benefits? Or does it do the opposite? Here’s a rundown of the most recent research findings.

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Retirement is a major life change. Current research sheds light on whether hanging up our professional hat benefits health and well-being.

Retirement’s impacts on mental health 

Retirement is a serious transition for most people, resulting in a drastic change in how they spend their time and focus their energy. Do major life changes like this have an impact on mental health? That’s what a study published in PloS One aimed to find out.

Researchers followed a cohort of 105 individuals from 6 months before retirement to 12 months afterward. Then, they assessed each participant for depression, anxiety, stress, well-being, life satisfaction, and self-esteem. They also mapped out patterns of change in their use of time, and used models to gauge the dose-response relationships between mental health changes and activities like sleep, screen time, and physical activity. 

Following retirement, researchers found that participants’ mental health generally improved, as they transitioned from working to spending most of their time on household chores, sleep, screen time, and quiet time (involving activities like reading). Specifically, researchers observed positive changes to scores of depression, stress, and self-esteem, but not to those of anxiety, well-being, or life satisfaction.

The authors concluded that replacing time spent at work with time spent doing physical activity (and, to some extent, sleep) is associated with improved mental health. 

Other studies, however, such as a meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Psychology, have reached different conclusions. The authors examined the findings of 151 studies published prior to 2016, which focused on the varying effects of early retirement.

With regard to mental health, the authors point out that people’s well-being is based on a number of “resources,” which cover basic needs, serve as an exhibition of worth and status, and protect against possible future losses. Professional life is linked with a range of such resources; on the other hand, retirement can be associated with different resources, like freedom and leisure time. The authors, however, point out that retirement, for some, can provoke “gloom, unease, and dread, and can be associated with fear of death.” 

On a similar note, the authors found that one of the strongest negative impacts of early retirement is lower levels of social contact. Early retirees “undergo a  significant reduction of social integration,” which isn’t typically counteracted by activities like volunteering, family duties, and hobbies. 

That said, the authors of the meta-analysis frequently noted an important point that tends to confound most studies on retirement: The effects of leaving professional life behind depend on a variety of factors like health and financial status prior to retirement. For example, the authors note that chronic illnesses or poor finances going into retirement can reduce quality of life thereafter.

Does retirement affect mortality?

Studies on the relationship between retirement and mortality have generally been mixed. 

As pointed out in the introduction to a meta-analysis, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, this has resulted in two schools of thought on the subject. The first posits that those who retire may live longer than those who keep working, due to relief from the adverse impacts of working. The other states that those who retire are more likely to die sooner, both because retirees no longer received the beneficial impacts of working and because retirement may have been prompted by ill health. The authors point out that numerous studies and reviews have found mixed evidence on the association between retirement and mortality, which indicates the need for a synthesis of findings. 

Authors of the meta-analysis examined 25 studies and, again, reached an equivocal conclusion. Researchers found no association between early retirement and mortality compared with on-time retirement. While the evidence suggests that on-time retirement is associated with a higher risk of mortality compared with continuing to work into old age, the authors found that, when adjusting for health status prior to retiring, on-time retirement was not associated with increased mortality risk.

The findings highlight the importance of considering the influence of prior health status when looking at associations between retirement and mortality. For example, results may reflect what’s known as the “healthy worker” effect, which describes the fact that healthier workers may keep working for longer, and voluntarily decide to retire later in order to enjoy the final part of their life. On the other hand, workers suffering ill health may be forced to retire earlier. 

According to the meta-analysis, involuntary retirement can have more adverse impacts on health compared with voluntarily retiring. On a similar note, early retirement has a greater negative effect on those in lower socioeconomic groups. 

The authors of the meta-analysis conclude that, while evidence suggests that working positively impacts well-being and health, retirement is associated with improvements in mental health. Research in this field is also confounded by the fact that different countries have different retirement ages—which may explain why some studies conducted in the United States have found a decline in physical health after retirement, while many conducted in European countries have found that early retirement is associated with physical and mental health improvements.

Retirement’s impact on mortality appears to largely depend on prior health status and a variety of other demographic factors.

It comes down to what works for you

Overall, whether retirement extends or shortens your lifespan depends on your situation. As noted by Harvard Health, while certain people may benefit from retiring early, it may suit others better to keep working. A positive work environment can offer plenty of mental and physical benefits; on the other hand, escaping your office could be the tonic you need to live a longer happier life. 

Learn more here about science-based tips to increase longevity. 

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