Does Working Longer Increase Your Lifespan?

Last Updated Mar 8, 2010 5:24 PM EST

One recent morning, while I was having some tea and reading one of my favorite mortality tables (the RP-2000 Mortality Study, for the detail-oriented among you), I noticed a table that compared the annual death rates among two groups of men aged 50 to 70. The first group was men who were working, and the second group was men who were fully retired. The death rates of those who were still working were roughly half that of the death rates of men the same age who were fully retired.

Here's a chart that compares these death rates:


What's going on here? I thought retirement was supposed to be good for you! (By the way, the study showed that the effect was also there for women, but it was less pronounced.)

This results shown on this chart immediately beg the question: Is this causation (working actually causes or enables you to live longer) or correlation (there's no direct casual relationship). Here's one possible explanation that would weigh in on the correlation side: People who are in poor health and can't work would fall into the retired group, whereas only healthy people can continue to work. But that doesn't really explain the difference, because people who were on disability benefits and whose health was compromised were excluded from both groups.

An experiment to conclusively figure out the connection would be somewhat difficult to carry out. You'd need to take a homogenous group of people and split them into two groups: one group takes cruises and plays golf--these people are effectively retired--and the other group continues to work. Then you'd have to measure their mortality rates in about 20 years. Hard to imagine this experiment ever taking place.

However, various longitudinal studies and anecdotal evidence are weighing in on the causation side. (For an excellent summary of this evidence, see George Vaillant's excellent book Aging Well). And actually, it seems that engagement with life is what helps prolong life. You can get engagement with life from working, but you can also get it from taking up causes, volunteering, hobbies, and contributing to your family and community.

Here's the takeaway for me: Finding powerful reasons for getting up in the morning in my retirement years is as important as my financial planning. My prior blog post, Can't Retire Yet? Don't Despair, suggests that we may need to work a little in our retirement years to make ends meet. In this case, I won't be bitter--working may be keeping me alive!

The jury is still out on the question of whether working might increase your longevity. What's your take on this?
  • Steve Vernon On Twitter»

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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