THE BLOG

Working Late Or Retiring Early: Which Is The Healthy Option?

08/10/2017 19:30 BST | Updated 08/10/2017 19:31 BST

The "working late train" keeps rolling as people are working longer and retiring later. The Government wants more of the same. "Extending working life is good for your health and well-being," we are told, so we are being urged to work longer. Andy Briggs, the Government's business champion for older workers, wants a million more people over 50 to be in work by 2022.

With this in mind, what about retirement? Let's say your employer is downsizing and you are offered an early retirement package. Is it going to promote or harm your health, if you take it? Will you blossom in your Autumn years on the tennis court or will the reality be inactivity and early decline?

Advocates of working longer, draw on a 2006 study which suggests we are healthier working than unemployed, providing the jobs we do are 'good jobs' - i.e. not intrinsically unhealthy. But this hardly deals with the issue of retirement - a different kettle of fish altogether to unemployment. Is retirement really good or bad for your health, in fact?

This is one of the questions being examined by the Life Long Health and Wellbeing research programme, funded by the Medical Research Council and the Economics and Social Research Council. It is supporting research into the influences throughout our lives which may affect our health and well-being in later age. "Is retirement good for you?" is one of these.

The answer requires a more subtle approach than one might imagine and not all is as it seems. Many people know someone who died within a few months of retirement, leading friends to infer that retirement was the kiss of death.

In fact, decisions on when to retire are often linked to individuals' states of health at the time, so the health condition which sparked the individual's retirement could well become the later cause of his or her decline.

But still there may be valid reasons to suspect retirement is not such a good thing. When we retire, we change our habits and behaviour in various ways. These new habits can be bad for our health.

Studies have shown that retirement is linked to less physical activity, changes in dietary patterns (eating less fresh fruit and vegetables for example), more alcohol consumption and less social interaction. Once we leave the routine of working life, the habits of a lifetime may be thrown overboard. The happy hour may start earlier, lunch may linger and that early morning brisk walk for the train we have lost, may eliminate our day's dose of strenuous exercise.

Being out of the labour market can decrease our sense of the structure of time. Our sense of where we are in the world, what is urgent and what we need to get on with can all be thrown awry.

Retirement can be a stressful event, impacting on our immune system, or potentially causing cardiovascular disease and generating anxiety and depression.

On the other hand, work can be stressful too. Leaving aside the conflicts or bad aspects of the working environment may be a blessed relief. There are two sides to the coin, but which is more significant? Would we, on balance, be healthier without retirement, or at least without early retirement?

Salis, Smeaton and Icardi's work for the Life Long Health and Wellbeing research programme provides some answers . This group of researchers investigated the impact of retiring at over 50 on nearly 8,800 people across 13 Western countries (the US, England, Italy, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Netherlands, Spain, France, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium and Greece). Participants were interviewed before retirement and in successive waves over a period of six or seven years.

Around 1,300 of the participants in the study retired at some point between 2004 and 2007. Their health was compared with the larger group who did not retire in the same time period, or only did so later.

The health outcomes of retirement or non-retirement were measured by self-reported health measures (whether individuals felt in "good", "very good" or "excellent" health) as well as objective measures such as whether they had been diagnosed with one or more among a list of conditions - heart problems, stroke, cancer, lung disease, high blood pressure or diabetes.

Using a statistical technique called "co-variate analysis," the researchers matched retired and non-retired individuals who were similar to one another in age, gender, education level, marital status, length of time in the job and a number of other indicators.

And their findings? In general terms, retirement in your fifties is bad for your health. The researchers found that retiring adversely affected the health of retirees compared with non-retirees, both in the immediate post retirement period and the longer term, six or seven years later.

Moreover this finding applies when using both 'subjective' measures (i.e. how they felt) and 'objective' measures (based on reported medical conditions). Those retired, not only felt in poorer health, they were in poorer health than those who had kept going. Two percentage points more retirees in the sample were diagnosed with chronic conditions than the non-retired.

The differences are not enormous, but they were significant. In the shorter term (two to three years after retirement) the proportion of retirees reporting that they felt in "good," "very good" or "excellent" health was five percentage points lower than it would have been had they not retired.

Separate analysis of the England only results, revealed that individuals from sedentary job backgrounds experience the biggest declines in health upon retirement, with the incidence of a chronic condition upon retirement increasing by an overall 10 percentage points and the negative impact being worse for men than for women. Retirement was particularly bad for mental well-being. So, for UK non-manual workers, particularly men, working longer rather than retiring earlier, seems to be the healthiest option.

The researchers comment that their findings support the idea that extending working life is beneficial to older individuals because work is a form of mental stimulation.

But, whatever people say, we have not yet reached "the age of no-retirement". Retirement will come to most of us one day. Hence, preventative measures are needed to limit retirement's negative effects, including workplace support for individuals who are considering it.

The isolating, negative impacts of retirement, in particular need attention. Measures could include the strengthening of local communities and social groups to support active ageing. Retirees struggling to cope with low levels of income could also benefit from financial support and advice.

While demographic change, skills shortages and the growing income replacement gap in pensions are all encouraging us to work longer, retirement is still seen by many as a hard earned end to the journey of working life. Arriving at the station, it seems, requires all the care of the engine driver avoiding slamming into the buffers.