As Americans watch years of retirement savings disappear in the stock market collapse, many are having the same thought: Maybe we'll just have to work forever.
While most of us really won't end up working until we die, the trend toward delayed retirement — in full swing even before this financial disaster — raises an interesting question: Will working longer be good or bad for our physical and mental health?
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The answer is unknown, but it's likely some people will thrive as they work into their late 60s or beyond, while many others will suffer, researchers say.
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"We have an interesting experiment going on," says Arie Kapteyn, a researcher with the Rand Corp. "It's a little early to know what the effects are."
The number of American men still working or returning to work after 65 has been rising since the early 1990s, breaking a decades-long pattern of earlier retirements. As more women have entered the workforce, more also have stayed on past 55, 60 and 65, says the National Institute on Aging.
The end of mandatory retirement laws and changes in Social Security helped spur the changes. But so did improvements in health. People who are in good health tend to work longer. So sorting out the health risks and benefits of extra years on the job is complex, says Richard Suzman, director of behavioral and social research at the institute: "There's an interactive effect. Health can affect whether you keep on working, and working can affect your health."
An aging warehouse worker might benefit from the exercise he gets walking and lifting — or might get injured. An executive who retires early might improve her well-being by taking long walks, cooking better meals and visiting friends — or might end up sitting in front of a TV, eating junk food and feeling lonely.
Study results so far are not encouraging for those who keep working. In one preliminary report, researchers looked at older workers and retirees in European countries where typical retirement ages varied. Male workers over age 65 were more likely to report poor physical health than their retired peers, says Rand researcher Gema Zamarro.
But she and her colleagues have not yet analyzed data for women or sorted out the health effects of different kinds of jobs. They also found no harm in working up to age 65 and no evidence that working longer was bad for cognitive or mental health.
Jody Sindelar, a researcher at the Yale School of Public Health, does believe there will be mental fallout, though, for people who end up working years longer than expected.
She is studying such people and, while her data have not yet been published, she predicts these folks "will not be happy." People who expected to travel or spend time with grandkids may instead find themselves struggling to keep up with the physical and mental demands of their jobs. Spouses who expected to retire together may realize that one person must keep working to support another who can't — and that dreams of shared hobbies and travel may never be realized.
"There are some things you can't put off for five years," Sindelar says.
But not everyone wants to retire at 65 or even 70. Some keep working because they like their jobs and are good at them. They should fare well, says Sharon Brangman, chief of geriatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, and a board member of the American Society of Geriatrics.
She says she recently lost a patient who worked all her life and loved it: "She was well into her 80s and was teaching a Spanish class every night of the week. She really enjoyed engaging with people."