Health Benefits of Working after Retirement

New research shows that post-retirement employment can improve a person's physical and mental well-being, which is good news for the rising number of Americans choosing to work after reaching retirement age.

An increasing number of people in the United States are opting to stay in or reenter the workforce after reaching retirement age, whether for financial reasons, personal fulfillment or to continue pursuing professional goals. New research shows that continuing to work beyond the traditional age of retirement provides not only monetary benefits, but also improves the physical and mental health of the workers, in some cases making them more vigorous than those who enter full retirement.

According to a new study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology published by the American Psychological Association, workers who began a part-time or temporary job or became self-employed after reaching retirement age suffered 17 percent fewer major diseases than those who ceased working entirely, and were generally less likely to experience physical decline.

This transitional employment between a long-term career and full retirement, also known as "bridge employment," was also found to have a beneficial psychological effect, with bridge employees scoring 31 percent higher on a mental health scale than retirement-age subjects who had stopped working.

Retirees who maintained part-time or temporary employment status were found to be less prone to high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, lung disease, heart disease, stroke, psychiatric problems and arthritis. They were also less likely to undergo "functional decline," which refers to how sharp and capable they are in doing day-to-day activities.

Of course, the study noted that much of the beneficial influence of retirement-age employment depends on "choosing a suitable type of bridge employment" that allows a worker to make use of his or her strengths.

"If you are doing something that is similar to what you were doing in your career, it's easier for you to adjust," Mo Wang, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland and a co-author of the study, told Reuters. "If you're working on something you are totally not familiar with, or if you're working on something just for the money return, then you have to readjust to the job, and for older adults it's usually pretty challenging."

Research on the subject of retirees and retirement-age workers is becoming more crucial to the business landscape as a larger proportion of the American workforce is reaching retirement age and companies are adapting to meet changing retirement needs.

According to a May survey from the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of full-time workers between the ages of 50 and 64 are planning to delay their retirement, more than any other segment of the adult population. Meanwhile, 16 percent of the 50-to-64 age group say they plan to never retire — at any age — twice as many as those in the 18-to-29-year-old workforce demographic.

The Pew survey found that a significant number of the employees who plan to hold off on their retirement (or forgo it entirely) are motivated by financial pressures stemming from the economic downturn. Regardless of income or age, workers who lost 40 percent or more of their savings are roughly twice as likely to delay retirement than others.

However, it is important to note that financial reasons are not the sole factor in making the decision. "The heightened inclination to delay retirement appears to be driven in part by the current recession, but it is also in sync with longer-term labor market trends. The labor force participation rate of those ages 65 and older has increased from 12.9 percent in 2000 to 16.8 percent in 2008," according to the survey's findings.

Even many workers with financially stable retirement plans are opting to continue to pursue their professional goals. In fact, a July report from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that half of workers who left their jobs by the age of 65 to 69 did so to find a new employer, while two-thirds of that group switched careers entirely.

"Millions of Americans are not abruptly leaving the labor force at retirement age but seeking new careers — sometimes in the same line of work but frequently in an entirely new field," the report states. "They are staying in the labor force for a variety of reasons — they want to remain active; they hope to make a contribution; they value the social networks work provides; and they often need the money or access to health care."

More Americans are choosing to stay in the workforce past the traditional retirement age, and research shows that this commitment can be beneficial to physical and psychological wellness, but there is also a less-tangible element of personal satisfaction and sense of structure that can derive from maintaining one's career.

"What the [new] study does is reinforce a few things we already know," Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging, recently told HealthDay News. "If you are involved in society and have purpose in life, whether that's through a job or as a volunteer, your health and your mental outlook is much better than if you're not."


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Bridge Employment and Retirees' Health: A Longitudinal Investigation

by Yujie Zhan, Mo Wang, Songqi Liu and Kenneth S. Shultz

Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, October 2009

Post-Retirement Jobs Benefit Health: U.S. Study

by Ellen Wulfhorst

Reuters, Oct. 13, 2009

Most Middle-Aged Adults are Rethinking Retirement Plans

by Rich Morin

Pew Research Center, May 28, 2009

Older Workers on the Move: Recareering in Later Life: In Brief

by Richard W. Johnson, Janette Kawachi and Eric K. Lewis

AARP Public Policy Institute, July 2009

For a Healthier Retirement, Work a Little

by Jennifer Thomas

HealthDay News, Oct. 16, 2009

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