A recently released study from the U.K. found that those who worked to an older age had better health [1].  This was true for both men and women.  These results make a great headline!  But the implications are worrisome, especially for those already retired or nearing their retirement date.

We’ve all heard stories about people who retired, ready to travel the world, embarking on an exciting new lifestyle.  They suddenly dropped dead.  These frightening anecdotes carry a lot of emotion, making them easy to remember and readily shared.  Unfortunately this can happen at retirement but it is not statistically likely to happen.  I also doubt that if they had remained working that they also would have remained living.

The Canadian government has told us to work longer:

The recent changes to retirement entitlement programs such as Old Age Security (OAS) and the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) are intended to keep us working longer, building our retirement savings.  By working longer we also help with the country’s fiscal situation because we delay receiving retirement benefits.  But now there’s a third benefit which is the potential to reduce our use of health care because working longer, according to this study, is good for our health.

What’s really going on with health at retirement?

Mental health isn’t tied to age at retirement.  For most people, mental health improves, regardless retirement age, as long as the individual chose their retirement timing.  Those who unexpectedly retired (often due to health issues or company downsizing) did not maintain high levels of mental health.  They were not in control of their own destiny and unprepared for life without work.

Physical health changes and retirement are more difficult to interpret.  So it’s difficult to understand what is really going on in the study results from the UK.  People are known to provide socially acceptable responses to survey questions.  It could be that those who retired early sometimes felt compelled to provide a an excuse.  Some may have indicated a health reason for their retirement even if this wasn’t true.  They don’t want to confess that they had enough money to meet their lifestyle needs and simply felt it was time to get on with their next phase of life.  This information may not make them popular with friends.

Abrupt Changes are Challenging

Working later in life may increase the likelihood of better health but it’s more likely that the type of work is the influencing factor.  Career jobs that include high stress and responsibility may not be the best choice when delaying retirement.  More satisfying, flexible and less demanding positions provide a chance to get used to a new lifestyle and living on a fixed income.  The study didn’t distinguish between career or post-career workers.

What is this study really telling us?

Health is not protected by choosing to work longer.  Health is protected by finding a transitional way to retire so that social networks are maintained or rebuilt.  It’s the social isolation that places health at risk.

Going cold turkey from work isn’t healthy when it comes to retirement!