Ahhhh, retirement. It sounds enticing, with its promise of freedom from the daily grind. But think carefully before trading employment for a poolside retreat. Why? There's growing evidence that people who work during the years typically spent in retirement live longer, healthier, and more independent lives than those who do not. "There's a strong argument for continuing to work throughout life," says Dr. Jochanan Stessman, head of the geriatric and rehabilitation department of Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem and co-author of a study that links work to greater health and longevity.
That doesn't mean you have to remain in a full-time job or career track to reap the health and longevity benefits. In fact, one study by researchers at the University of Michigan and National Taiwan University found that just 100 hours per year of work is all it takes, leaving plenty of time for leisurely pursuits. Nor is it necessary to receive a paycheck: Several studies have shown that volunteerism has the same association with better health and greater longevity as paid work does.
So what's the evidence? Looking at a representative sample of 4,860 U.S. residents born before 1924, the Michigan and Taiwan researchers compared those who worked 100 or more hours in 1998 with those who worked less. After controlling for the impact on mortality and health of factors aside from work—including age, marital status, and preexisting conditions—they concluded that by 2000, "those working for pay were only half as likely to have reported bad health and one-quarter as likely to have died" as nonworkers, says Ming-Ching Luoh, co-author and associate economics professor at National Taiwan University. In a study slated for publication in the journal Aging—Clinical and Experimental Research, Stessman and his co-authors found similar results held for 231 Jerusalem residents born in 1920 and 1921.
While the studies strongly suggest that work promotes health and longevity, they do not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. One reason: Although the researchers use statistical methods to correct for the possibility that people who work are healthier to begin with, "it's very hard to control for all the nuances" of health, says Laura Carstensen, psychology professor at Stanford University.
To prove that work promotes health, it's necessary to take a page from the way drug trials are done and randomly assign some people to work while others remain idle. One 2004 study that takes this approach—by researchers including Dr. Linda Fried, director of the Center on Aging & Health at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions—shows that four to eight months after starting work in late 1999 and early 2000, retirees putting in 15 or more hours a week in Baltimore public schools were stronger and more physically, cognitively, and socially active than a nonworking control group. The people in the study had volunteered for Experience Corps, a program that places older volunteers in public schools in 14 cities nationwide.
The decision of which applicants got jobs was random.
Why is work associated with better health and greater longevity? Work requires you to have social contact, use your mind, and get some exercise, all of which promote health and longevity. Doing something you enjoy can contribute to better mental health, too. And a paycheck can help you take better care of yourself. Thinking of going back to work? Some online job sites and organizations that cater to experienced workers can help (table). Whatever you do, make sure work is on your retirement agenda. After all, it's more than a paycheck. It's a way to do something satisfying and keep active and healthy in old age.