The evidence on retirement

retirementThe other day, a friend who is nearing retirement age stopped me in the gym locker room.  “I want to know what the evidence says,” she told me. “Is retirement going to be good for me?”

Of course, I went searching for systematic reviews.  I found one systematic review published in 2013 in BMC Public Health. The reviewers assessed 22 longitudinal studies on retirement, 11 of which they considered to be high in quality.

Twelve of the studies reported on the mental health effects of retirement, and the news was positive!  Retirees were less likely to suffer from mental health problems and more likely to report they felt positive, on the whole.  The review authors suggest this improvement likely occurs because retirees no longer experience work-related stress.

In addition, 12 studies reported on the physical health effects of retirement. Here the data are less clear. Some studies found retirees improved their physical health, while others found health declines among retirees. Some studies indicated no change in health for retirees, as well.

On the whole, researchers found many gaps in the data on retirement.  For example, it’s not clear if retiring voluntarily yields greater health improvements compared to being forced to retire. One study did find that involuntary retirees are more likely to perceive a decline in their overall health compared to those who leave work willingly, but there isn’t enough evidence to draw a definitive conclusion.

The type of job a person holds is likely to affect a retiree’s experience, but there is no clear evidence about the differences between white-collar and blue-collar workers, for example.

Finally, a major problem with research on retirement is that it’s difficult to tease out the effects of aging from the data on retirement, because health tends to decline with age. This is another area where more research is needed to draw clear conclusions.

“This is a very important study that suggests many ways to improve research on retirement and health, explained Elaine Wethington, a medical sociologist and researcher at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research. “We lack research on how prior health problems may affect the timing of retirement. We lack research whether the decision was freely chosen or whether it was forced in some way by circumstances. We also lack research on how prior work conditions may affect the health of those who retire.”

In addition to these gaps, the current generation of retirees are making different choices compared to generations past, Wethington said.

“Research suggests that Baby Boomers are taking a different path to retirement than previous cohorts of older adults,” she said. “Boomers have more education on average and they hold different ideas about what retirement should be like. In addition, many retiring Baby Boomers are women.  Their work experience has been very different than women in past cohorts.”

Wethington points to a qualitative study published earlier this year in the Journal of Aging Studies, where researchers conducted in-depth interviews with both working and retired Baby Boomers. Only white-collared workers were included in this study.

Researchers found that the current generation is delaying retirement and instead moving into and out of paid work. They didn’t find a single pattern that Baby Boomers are following. Instead, they found people who are reaching retirement age today are taking different pathways depending on their finances, health and perceptions of retirement.

The take-home message here: Retirement is good for your mental health, but it’s not clear how it effects physical health. More research is needed to consider the wide range of factors that play into retirement decisions and lifestyles, especially as new generations of retirees make different decisions than the people before them.

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