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Can retirement be bad for you?

The key to better health in older age for some people may be to keep working, a new study suggests. People who are retired may be more likely to have mental and physical health problems than people who remain in work.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

 senior couple

There hasn’t been much research into how the number of years people have been retired might affect their health. But one theory is that people’s health improves when they first retire, and then gets worse over time as they become less physically active or have a less varied social life.

To find out more, researchers at a UK think-tank interviewed people aged between 50 and 69 years, and then again two or three years later, to ask them about their physical and mental health. They then compared the responses of people in work with those of people who had retired.

What does the new study say?

The researchers found:

  • People of similar ages who had retired were less likely to describe themselves as being in ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ health compared with people who were still in work.
  • People who had retired were more likely than people still in work to have depression or at least one diagnosed condition affecting their physical health.
  • Retired people were more likely to be taking medicines to treat health problems.

When the researchers looked at results from the second round of interviews, they found that people were more likely to have poor physical or mental health the longer they had been retired.

How reliable is the research?

This is research drawn mainly from interviews and by reviewing earlier studies of the positive and negative health benefits of work and retirement. But it hasn’t been published in a journal, so it hasn’t been carefully reviewed by other researchers in the way that journal-published articles are. This means we can’t be sure about the quality of this study, and we aren’t sure that the results are reliable.

Many things, such as being less physically active, can increase a retired person’s risk of health problems. And retirement itself can be a stressful event in people’s lives. These kinds of things can affect the results of studies. This research also didn’t look at whether retirement affects different types of workers differently. For example, people who work in heavy manual work may be affected differently than people who work in offices.

The research was done jointly by the Institute of Economic Affairs, a body that studies economic and social problems, and the Age Endeavour Fellowship, a charity that supports older people.

What does this mean for me?

This research highlights that we still don’t fully understand the complex nature of poor health after retirement. But it does remind us that it is important to stay as physically and mentally active as possible when we stop working to help reduce the chances of health problems in older age.

Published on May 17, 2013

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