That provocative question is behind a fascinating study of 9,000 Europeans across 11 countries. Here’s what you need to know.
The story is familiar to many of us. Beloved friend or family member retires after a long and vibrant working life, only to fall ill a short time later. Such a shame, we think; what are the odds?
The answer might surprise you. Research published this spring by the Institute of Economic Affairs found that there are “negative and substantial effects on health from retirement.” Work Longer, Live Healthier summarizes the findings of the study, based on interviews with 9,000 Europeans in 11 countries. Being retired meant respondents were more likely to have been diagnosed with a physical ailment, were more likely to be clinically depressed, were taking more drugs and even had a weaker grip.
“What my findings suggest is that in the first year or so, there seems to be either no effect or even a positive effect,” said Gabriel Sahlgren, director of research at the Centre for Market Reform of Education in London, England. He and I spoke on Friday. “That could be what I term a ‘holiday effect.’ It hasn’t really hit you, the fact that you’re not going to go back. The negative effects take some time before they kick in.”
Your health is likely to worsen as you spend more and more years in retirement, too, according to the study. That’s a chilling message given the rise in life expectancy we’ve seen in recent years. Canadians aged 65 are expected to live close to 20 years more, according to Statistics Canada data. That’s up from 18 years just a decade ago.
While Sahlgren stressed that more research is needed, he told me he doesn’t see anything in the data to suggest that the results are unique to Europeans.
What can you and I do with this information? No big surprises there:
- Keep working if you can. That doesn’t have to mean doing the same job or career. You might not even need to earn money. But stay active. Volunteer, take on work you can manage. Whatever it takes to stay physically active and mentally engaged.
- Take care of yourself. Diet and exercise are obviously important. But that doesn’t come easily to a lot of seniors. “It could be that the incentives to invest in your health decline simply because the economic incentive isn’t there,” Sahlgren said. “You don’t have to care as much about your health because you’re not working anymore.”
- Prepare yourself emotionally for retirement. If your identity is too tightly wrapped up in your professional life, retirement could prove a tough transition. Here are seven questions to ask yourself before you retire.
I asked Sahlgren how his research has influenced his own plans. “I’ve never really considered fully retiring,” he joked. But his message is more nuanced than that.
“It is not that everybody should work until they die,” he said. “My suggestion is rather that we have a healthier work-retirement balance … The balance has to change, both for economic and for health reasons.”
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