What is the ideal age for retirement? While 65 is the traditional retirement age, nearly a third of non-retired Americans predict they will retire after age 67, the current minimum age for receiving full Social Security retirement benefits. A 2014 Gallup poll found that the average age at which Americans expect to retire has been increasing over the last two decades.
Deciding when to retire is one of life’s major decisions. A myriad of factors—including finances, family, health, and culture—shape that decision. A recent study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health suggests one more thing to consider: how retirement affects your longevity.
The researchers from Oregon State University and Colorado State University investigated the optimal retirement timing to preserve longevity by looking at 2956 participants from the Healthy and Retirement Study (HRS). All were working in the year 1992 and had retired by 2010. Their average age of retirement turned out to be just shy of 65 years. Yet, delaying retirement was associated with living longer while early retirement increased mortality.
In order to exclude the possibility of “healthy worker bias,” or that those who continue to work may be healthier, participants were divided into two groups: a healthy group, who felt their health had no impact on retirement, and an unhealthy group, who felt poor health influenced their reason for retirement. After accounting for other socio-demographics factors that can influence mortality, such as gender, race, level of education, smoking, and physical activity, they found that among the healthy group, retiring 1 year later past 65 was associated with an 11% lower mortality risk.
The results were similar among unhealthy retirees—for them, retiring 1 year later than 65 was associated with a 9% lower mortality risk.
“One possible explanation,” according to the study authors, “is employment is a key component of individuals’ identity that provides them with substantial financial, psychosocial and cognitive resources.”
Other studies have weighed in differently. A 2009 study found the opposite conclusion. Among healthy people, those who retired early had a significantly lower mortality. And another recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found retirement was associated with transitioning to a healthier lifestyle that included a lower likelihood of smoking, and less physical inactivity and excessive sitting—all behaviors that suggest early retirement may reduce mortality.
Rather than pitting employment versus retirement, perhaps a better framework is deciding how you plan to spend your later years. When viewed beyond Western industrialized countries and across cultures, the definition of retirement is elusive. In Okinawa, Japan, a region with some of the worlds’ healthiest and longest living people, the word retirement doesn’t even exist. Rather, their prescription for longevity, health, and happiness includes staying socially engaged, mentally challenged, and physically active in pursuits that are meaningful and fulfilling.
“It may not apply to everybody,” said the lead author of this study, but working past retirement age can be one, among many other ways, to do just that.