Working at older ages appears to keep people mentally sharp, physically active, and socially connected, according to some research. But other studies suggest that retirement may reduce health-threatening stress and give older people more time to prioritize exercise and healthy eating.
Determining the pros and cons of working past traditional retirement ages is a challenge for researchers: People who start to experience declines in their health and mental capacity may retire early, leaving the healthiest segment of the older population employed and thereby skewing the results. Taking these dynamics into account, several recent studies try to sort out the health benefits of work in later years and of retiring.
“Use it or lose it,” may apply to mental function in old age, hypothesize Susann Rohwedder of the RAND Corporation, and Robert J. Willis of the University of Michigan.1 They use data from the nationally representative U.S. Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to compare participants’ memory tests scores with the scores of Europeans participating in comparable studies in 12 countries. Scores are higher in the United States where a greater share of older adults remain in the labor force into their late 60s, and lower in countries where most people retire much earlier. Because most people tend to retire when they are eligible for their countries’ public social security benefits, these findings provide support for the advantages of working longer, the researchers argue. A lack of mental stimulation in retirement, which they call “mental retirement,” may contribute to cognitive decline, they suggest.
A team of international scholars offers additional support for the “use it or lose it” hypothesis.2 They show that self-employed French workers who retire at older ages have a much lower risk of developing dementia than early retirees. To weed out people who may have retired when early signs of cognitive impairment emerged, the researchers excluded from their study workers diagnosed with dementia within five years of retirement. “Our results indicate the potential importance of maintaining high levels of cognitive and social stimulation throughout work and retiree life,” Carole Dufouil and her team writes.
Shrinking social networks may help explain how early retirement accelerates cognitive decline, a pair of Germany-based scholars suggest.3 Using comparable data from 19 European countries, they demonstrate associations among early retirement, smaller social networks, and cognitive decline. “Social contacts, especially with friends, decline gradually after retirement,” particularly with early retirement, point out Axel Börsch‐Supan and Morten Schuth of the Max Planck Institute. “Social contacts are a side effect of employment that keeps workers mentally agile,” they argue.
Another study based on Europeans, however, finds retirement may be related to improved physical health and may bolster blue collar workers’ cognitive functioning, perhaps through more opportunities for intellectual stimulation than their workplaces provided, Norma Coe of the University of Pennsylvania, and Gema Zamarro of the RAND Corporation suggest.4 Similarly, analysis of U.S. Older Americans participating in the HRS shows that retirement may improve physical health, related in part to retirees using their additional leisure time to practice better health habits such as smoking less and exercising more.5
1 Susann Rohwedder and Robert J. Willis, “Mental Retirement,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 24, no. 1 (2010): 119-38.
2 Carole Dufouil et al., “Older Age at Retirement Is Associated With Decreased Risk of Dementia,” European Journal of Epidemiology 29, no. 5 (2014): 353-61.
3 Axel Börsch‐Supan and Morten Schuth, “Early Retirement, Mental Health, and Social Networks,” in Discoveries in the Economics of Aging, ed. David Wise (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press and National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014).
4 Norma B. Coe and Gema Zamarro, “Retirement Effects of Health in Europe,” Journal of Health Economics 30, no. 1 (2011): 77-86.
5 Michael Insler, “The Health Consequences of Retirement,” Journal of Human Resources 49, no. 1 (2014): 195-233.