Working Longer May Translate Into Living Longer13 years, 10 months ago
Posted on Oct 09, 2006, 6 a.m.
By Bill Freeman
You'd think that retiring would make you healthier. Finally, you can leave all the stress of the working world behind. Think again. Complete retirement leads to an 11 percent decline in mental health, an 8 percent increase in illness, and a 23 percent increase in difficulty performing daily activities over a six-year period, according to Dhaval Dave of the National Bureau of Economic Research and Bentley College (Waltham, Mass.). Of course, there's a quick fix for this: Keep working. "The declines in health are much lower and, in some cases, nonexistent for those that continue to work part time," Dave says.
Complete retirement leads to an 11 percent decline in mental health, an 8 percent increase in illness, and a 23 percent increase in difficulty performing daily activities over a six-year period, according to Dhaval Dave of the National Bureau of Economic Research and Bentley College (Waltham, Mass.). Of course, there's a quick fix for this: Keep working. "The declines in health are much lower and, in some cases, nonexistent for those that continue to work part time," Dave says.
This is a story that Britton Chance, 93, knows well. He bikes three-quarters of a mile to the University of Pennsylvania for work each day and has never thought much about retirement. A professor emeritus of biochemistry and biophysics, Chance says, "Most of the people who work on cognitive deficits realize that it's better to use it than to lose it." And as he continues to supervise and furnish ideas for medical research, write reports, apply for funds and attend seminars where he keeps up to date on the latest findings, Chance is not just providing a service to medical science but contributing to his own longevity.
The Alzheimer's Association identifies four major components to staying healthy later in life: mental stimulation, physical activity, social connectedness and a healthful diet. Working or staying otherwise active and engaged is one good way to make the first three happen, especially if your job gets you off the couch talking to people and learning new things. "It's important to challenge yourself and to constantly try to better yourself, and for lots of people, that's what staving off retirement can do," says Elizabeth Edgerly of the Alzheimer's Association.
Working longer is not always the path to better health, of course. If your work is routine and stressful or not intellectually challenging, then working longer can actually hurt your health, Edgerly says. The objective should be to find a job that keeps you meeting fulfilling goals.
Sharon Nelson, 60, did just that. She retired after 27 years as a vocational instructor to become a docent at the Ano Nuevo wildlife preserve in California. During the elephant seal breeding season, December through March, she leads guided three-mile walks, rain or shine, to the dunes so that people can watch these large mammals battle for breeding hierarchy. Nelson has learned about elephant seal behavior, the area's ecology and ocean currents, things she knew nothing about when she was teaching. Edgerly calls this a "triple-bonus-point activity," because it incorporates mental stimulation, social connection and physical activity all essential to living a longer and healthier life.
Other triple-bonus-point examples include dancing, playing golf, coaching sports and being a musician in a band.
"Older persons who pursue activities in which they experience a sense of control and mastery are healthier both physically and mentally than those who do not," says Gene Cohen, director of George Washington University's center on aging. Engaging in challenging activities that produce a sense of accomplishment actually boosts one's immune system.
Ron Harris, 60, planned to retire into a life of golf and fishing from his maintenance manager position at a BP refinery near Chicago. But he missed the sense of fulfillment his job provided. So, Harris became captain of emergency medical services for the volunteer fire department in a Tennessee retirement community.
"It gets you up, gets you going, and it challenges the mind," Harris says. Now he is constantly challenged mentally and physically, administering medical treatment when he gets to a call before the ambulance or stringing out fire hoses. Not only is Harris' new proficiency improving the lives of his patients, but it's also assisting his own body in fighting disease.
"There seem to be health benefits to keeping all of your body parts moving including the nerve cells in your brain," says John Trojanowski, director of the University of Pennsylvania Institute on Aging. "And the more engaged you are with other people, the more healthy you are." Trojanowski, 59, plans never to retire. In fact, he's having so much fun putting in about 90 hours per week that he'd like to live to be 200. "The best way to do that," he says, "is for me to continue to be active and engaged in my work."