Is late retirement the secret to long life?

While there’s much debate about retirement age, research conducted by Chenkai Wu, a doctoral student in public health at the University of Oregon has shown that pushing back retirement age could increase life expectancy. The researcher explained his work during an interview with Nicole Torres for the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in October 2016. Why would ‘late’ retirement have an impact on longevity?

Working with professors Robert Stawski and Michelle Odden (University of Oregon), along with Gwenith Fisher (University of Colorado), C. Wu based his research on a longitudinal study (carried out between 1992 and 2010) on health and retirement. The study evaluated 2,956 Americans aged 50 and up. Most participants within this cohort retired at about 65 years of age. Supported by statistical analysis, the key point of the research highlighted that in people who stopped working a little later, at 66 years of age, mortality dropped by 11%!

This relationship between a later retirement and a longer life expectancy was unaffected by sociodemographic factors linked to lifestyle and health (cigarette smoking, alcohol, chronic illnesses, BMI, etc.). Other variables such as ethnic origin, age, education, and wealth were studied; but again no influence was found on the relationship, the same went for the type of employment: managers, employees and workers.

Since other studies are necessary (particularly randomized controlled trials), C. Wu does not claim that working longer necessarily increases longevity. Nor is this the main message the researcher wants to convey. He would rather see people start thinking about the benefits of work that could slow physical and cognitive decline. When we work, we’re active, we interact with coworkers, etc. Once we’re retired, the loss of these benefits can be difficult to manage.

The researcher also highlights the role of cultural and institutional norms that influence retirement age. According to him: “People will feel happier and more in control if they retire at an age consistent with what the culture of the country expects.” He cites the example of the United States where late retirement is often culturally desirable. Nevertheless, in cases where work is a major source of stress, C. Wu suggests that retiring early could be beneficial, while specifying that retirement itself can also be stressful. One solution might be to offer a slower transition into retirement (working part time or performing other functions) so that people can remain active and socially engaged, factors that would be beneficial to their health.
Source: Interview with Chenkai Wu, “Defend your research - You’re likely to live longer if you retire after 65”, in Harvard Business Review, Oct. 2016

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