Can WHEN and WHY we retire affect our health? If so, what happens AFTER we retire?

Changes in state and occupational pensions are affecting when and how we retire. So is retirement likely to be good or bad for our health? Here’s what research suggests: 

Delaying retirement can be good for our health and longevity

  • People live for six weeks longer, on average, for every year that they continue to work.
  • For most people Working beyond normal retirement age has no negative effects on health and may have a positive effect on mental health. There are obvious exceptions like dangerous or physically demanding jobs, but these are less common now.
  • Retiring later appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, according to the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Early Retirement provides a short-term ‘holiday’ boost for our mental health– but can be bad for our long-term health

  • Early retirement may initially reduce fatigue, stress and depressive symptoms - especially if people were in very stressful or physically demanding jobs.However, it doesn’t seem to have any beneficial effect on your chance of developing a chronic illness. That’s according to a 15-year study in France.
  • However, if you retire at 55 or earlier it could be a health risk. Various studies show that, over the long term, an early retirement is associated with negative effects on physical and mental health.

Voluntary and planned retirement is less stressful

  • Voluntary retirement, where you feel financially secure and choose to stop working, is less stressful and has less impact on your mental and physical health than involuntary retirement i.e. statutory or forced retirement (due to company reorganisations or ill health). That’s according to a recent study.
  • Retirement is not a health risk if it takes place at the standard retirement age for the society. This seems to be less to do with the specific age (as retirement ages vary from one country to another and can change over time) but more a question of social norms and expectations.
  • Employees who retire involuntarily tend to drink more, whereas voluntary retirees did not change their alcohol consumption.

Does it matter what job you were doing?

There isn’t much research available for people who were in different types of occupation e.g. in white-collar versus blue-collar jobs. As indicated above though, those working in very stressful, dangerous or physically demanding jobs are likely to feel the greatest short-term health boost from retirement. A 20-year study of civil servants (mainly white-collar office workers) reports that senior civil servants/higher earners have improved mental health and well being on retirement compared with less senior/lower earners - possibly because they can afford a more active social life and a healthier diet.

Successfully adjusting to retirement

The following all seem to have health benefits post retirement:

  • Don’t stop working completely: suddenly stopping all employment increases the risk of mobility problems, illness (including heart attack and cancer) and a decline in mental health.
  • Work part-time: conversely employees who work part time or are self-employed or temporarily employed (particularly if it’s in their former field), rather than retiring completely, cope better and have fewer major diseases and mental health issues (probably because it keeps a sense of identity, value and status). That’s according to a US study.
  • Maintain social contact: Active social roles, such as volunteering or being an active part of the community have beneficial health outcomes in retirement. They enable people to maintain contact with others and status in a community.
  • Stay physically active: We know how important exercise is for health but research suggests that on retirement our exercise decreases. We need to remain physically active, rather than slipping into a more sedentary lifestyle.
  • Stay mentally active: To help prevent or delay the onset of dementia.

Conclusions 

  • WHEN you retire matters. If it is the same as most other people there’s unlikely to be a health risk.
  • WHY you retire matters too. If it is your own choice you’re likely to feel less stressed and less likely to become unhealthy.
  • What you do AFTER you retire is particularly important. Suddenly stopping all work increases the risk to your health. However, carrying on with some form of part time paid or voluntary work, and staying physically, socially and mentally active all tend to be good for your health.

Reviewed and Updated June 2014, next review date June 2017