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Health Consequences of Early Retirement

By: Clemens Tesch-Römer, Director, German Centre of Gerontology

Publish Date: May  19,  2009


Entering retirement is a status passage, constituting the transition from mid to late adulthood. For many people - especially those who have had long working careers - this passage from the "second phase of life" (labor force participation) to the "third life phase" (retirement) can be a crucial event.  The move to retirement can impact leisure activities and social networks, and challenge self-images and ambitions, in addition to necessitating adjustment to changed material circumstances. The passage to retirement and its health implications is a subject abounding with assumptions, conjectures and myths. Three questions may hint at prototypical theoretical approaches of the passage into retirement: Is retirement a loss? Is it a gain? Or is retirement just irrelevant to health (an "epiphenomenon")? Involuntarily exiting from the labor force, on the other hand, has lasting negative repercussions on subjective health.

  • Passage into Retirement as a Loss:  One of the earliest gerontological theories perceived retirement as a critical loss. Since the career role is a pivotal element of identity, at least for those in employment, the loss of this role entails not only the loss of employment but also the status and sense of purpose that comes with a career. Should the passage into retirement not be superseded by alternative fields of activity, the gerontological activity theory postulates similar consequences.
  • Passage into Retirement as a Gain:   Where the late phase in life is soundly cushioned by material provision, the positive aspects of the transition to retirement are often emphasized.  Retirement heralds the start of a "late freedom." The burden of employment is cast aside, time and hierarchical constraints disappear - and the retiree has the opportunity of structuring the time ahead according to his or her own wishes.
  • Passage into Retirement as an Epiphenomenon: Changes in health in mid and late adulthood are influenced by a number of factors that take effect over time and gradually lead to constraints, losses and (chronic) illness. If this assumption is followed, progression into retirement is not a decisive event, but serves a marker function to signal health and social changes that would or will take place anyway.

What does gerontological literature have to say about whether passage into retirement constitutes a risk factor for deteriorating health and heightened morbidity? Studies published over the past 20 years emphasized that retirement is not a risk for health. With an eye to the theoretical concepts discussed above, the overall conclusion can be drawn that the passage into retirement does not lead to a loss or a gain of health - provided it takes place at or around the time defined by society as the "standard retirement age", often around the age of 65 years of age. Research literature contains similar findings in relation to physical, mental and subjective health. There is no evidence of an increased mortality rate through transition to retirement, provided the reason for retirement is old age and health status at the time of labor force exit is taken into account. Passage into retirement on grounds of age seems to have no major negative effects on physical or mental health. For many people, perceived, subjective health is even positively affected by the passage into retirement. People who worked in higher ranking jobs have more benefit from the transition to retirement than those in lower categories of work. It is possible that education and professional skills are so useful in the structuring of retirement that positive effects on health are felt.

A different picture emerges, however, when retirement takes place significantly earlier (at the age of 55 or before) or in the case of involuntary, forced retirement. Retirement occurring significantly earlier has a negative effect on the health of the individual concerned - also when medical conditions prior to the onset of retirement are taken into account. The relevance of age on retirement as a factor is demonstrated both in regard to the mortality risk (as the "hardest" health indicator) and various health aspects (physical health, mental health, subjective health). Early retirement (prior to the age of 60) seems to entail a heightened mortality risk, not only in the first years of retirement but also in the later years. Studies show that an early and/or involuntary move to retirement is associated with negative effects on physical and mental health - more so for men than for women. Deterioration of mental health that accompanies an early passage into retirement seems, however, to recede as the aging process continues. In contrast to mortality, exceeding the "standard retirement age" of 65 is relevant to the mental health of early retirees: as time passes, the mental symptoms associated with early transition to retirement recede. Involuntarily exiting from the labor force, on the other hand, has lasting negative repercussions on subjective health. People who retire involuntarily or who were unemployed prior to passage into retirement have a poorer health status in the long term.

What influence does transition to retirement have on health aspects of lifestyles? Findings on this point are inconclusive, partly because there are relatively few studies available on the subject. The hope that passage into retirement will be accompanied by an improvement in health behavior cannot be universally confirmed. There is admittedly a marked increase in the proportion of people who either take up or expand their physical exercise habits significantly following retirement, but it is an open question whether this additional physical exercise compensates for the loss of physical exercise associated with employment. A look at dietary habits reveals both quite optimistic and more pessimistic findings: on the one hand, retirees have more time to prepare meals, meaning that (in the USA) less high-calorie, unbalanced food is consumed outside the home (fast food). On the other hand, people then eat more, with negative effects on weight.

In summary it can be asserted that it is not so much the passage into retirement that has negative effects on health and social networks as the way and the circumstances under which this transition is accomplished. An early, involuntary exit from the work force has in all probability negative repercussions for the subjective well-being and health of the person involved. Health interventions could, and should, be planned and carried out in the context of the health behavior of retirees. Physical activity and a healthy diet are the best ways of preventing the progression of existing chronic illnesses, the occurrence of new diseases and the onset of the need for long-term care. It should be the objective of appropriate interventions to see this knowledge absorbed into accepted wisdom, channelled into motivation and goals, and reflected in changes in behavior.