The 2-Minute Thought: Is Retirement Bad For Your Health?

A 2010 study done by three researchers at the University of Zurich found that retiring early could increase the chances of serious health issues and premature death.  Specifically, it estimated that each year of early retirement was associated with a 1.8 month decrease in lifespan, and it highlighted a higher incidence of cardiovascular disorder – perhaps because of an increase in poor health behaviors like smoking, drinking, and inactivity.  Keep in mind, however, that the researchers were looking specifically at blue-collar workers in Austria born between 1929 and 1941.

The U.S. Health and Retirement Study from 2012 found that among 5422 individuals, those who retired were 40% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those who continued working.  In another study from 2013, the Institute of Economic Affairs found that retirement increased the chances of depression by 40% and at least one serious physical disorder by 60%, like heart disease, hypertension, stroke, or high blood pressure.

These results make retirement sound awful.  But there also are studies showing that retirement has either no effect on health – or a very positive effect.  A 2016 study from the University of Sydney found that health improved significantly after retirement because lifestyles changed for the better.  After retiring, people slept 11 minutes more each day, decreased sedentary time by 67 minutes a day, and increased physical activity by 93 minutes a week – plus, 50% of female smokers stopped smoking after retiring.

So which is it?  Is retirement good or bad for your health?  One set of studies suggests retirement is a glorious time when you finally get to sleep as much as you should, play golf, and learn French cooking and Latin.  The other suggests it’s a time of loneliness and inactivity where you deteriorate in your house alone.   

Probably there’s no useful conclusion – or it’s a little of both or neither.  Just as one’s working years aren’t a monolithic block of time, retirement isn’t likely to be a uniform experience either.  It’s probably more useful to think of retirement as multi-phased and a progression of experiences.  The U.S. Health and Retirement Study cited above found that the increased chance of heart attack or stroke was most pronounced in the first year of retirement but that it leveled off afterwards.  That suggests that there may be a period of initial stress when retirement begins – or at least some complex health, social, and psychological interactions -- but that a healthier period of adjustment follows.

In any case, as we live longer, our conceptions of retirement and work will change.  The sharp division between work and retirement may be replaced by a more nuanced progression between working full-time and not working at all.  And if people born after 2000 have a good chance of living to 100, as has been reported recently, the way we plan our entire lives will change.  It is less likely that we’ll settle on a long-term career in our 20s, stick with one career over our entire working lives, or quit working completely in our 60s or 70s.  It is more likely that we’ll study and try different kinds of work well into our 30s, not buy a home until our 40s, and stay active into our 80s and beyond.