Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Work, not retirement, saves lives

  • Print

Teddy Roosevelt once said "The best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing."

Recent research suggests he may have been more right than he knew: Life's "best prize" might actually extend life itself.

Our common perception is retirement is a time when we can relax and take better care of ourselves after stressful careers. But what if work itself is beneficial to our health, as several recent studies suggest?

One of them, by Jennifer Montez of Harvard University and Anna Zajacova of the University of Wyoming, examined why the gap in life expectancy between highly educated and less-educated Americans has been growing so rapidly. (I have explored this topic in several previous columns and have also agreed to be co-chairman of a National Academy of Sciences panel that will delve into it in more detail.)

Examining the growing educational gradient in life expectancy from 1997 to 2006, Montez and Zajacova focused on white women ages 45 to 84. In addition to differential trends in smoking by education, they concluded that among these women "employment was, in and of itself, an important contributor." The life expectancy of less-educated women was being shortened by their lower employment rates compared with those of highly educated women.

The researchers tried to test whether the problem was that less-educated people had worse health, and therefore couldn't work. But they found that "the contribution of employment to diverging mortality across education levels is at least partly due to the health benefits derived from employment."

Researchers at the Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain have also recently identified "negative and substantial effects on health from retirement." Their study found retirement to be associated with a significant increase in clinical depression and a decline in self-assessed health, and these effects grew larger as the number of years people spent in retirement increased.

Similarly, a study published in 2008 by the National Bureau of Economic Research found full retirement increased difficulties with mobility and daily activities by five per cent to 16 per cent and, by reducing physical exertion and social interactions, also harmed mental health.

The broader literature on the question of whether retirement harms health has been more mixed. The big question is whether the observed physical deterioration after retirement occurs because it is underlying poor health that leads people to end their working life. Some studies that try to control for this reverse causality, such as a 2007 paper by John Bound of the University of Michigan and Timothy Waidmann of the Urban Institute, find that retirement doesn't harm health -- and may actually improve it. Another study, by Esteban Calvo of the Universidad Diego Portales in Chile, Natalia Sarkisian of Boston College and Christopher Tamborini of the Social Security Administration, finds harm from early retirement but no benefit from delaying retirement beyond the traditional age.

My own reading of all of these studies is there is at least strongly suggestive evidence that not working, in and of itself, can be harmful to your health. And this raises the question of what it means for the puzzling finding that overall life expectancy appears to rise, not fall, during recessions.

Now I'm only speculating, but the answer could lie in the fact that, even during a recession, most people still work. Because a larger-than-usual minority don't, pollution is reduced, traffic fatalities decline and the quality of staffing at nursing homes improves -- and these changes boost the health of the people who are still working. It's terrible to say, but the research seems to suggest being out of work yourself may hurt your health -- but having other people out of work may help it.

Which brings us back to Mr. Roosevelt. Most of us seem to think we would be in better health if we won the lottery and spent our days on the beach, rather than struggling with sometimes stressful jobs. Yet the next time you think your job is killing you, just remember that the evidence, if anything, suggests the opposite. Your job may be saving your life.

 

Peter Orszag is vice-chairman of corporate and investment banking and chairman of the financial strategy and solutions group at Citigroup and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.


-- Bloomberg News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 17, 2013 A11

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Doug Speirs trains for role in Nutcracker

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS  070527 The 21st Annual Teddy Bears' Picnic at Assiniboine Park. The Orlan Ukrainian Dancers perform on stage.
  • horse in sunset - marc gallant

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Now that former cabinet minister Theresa Oswald has entered the NDP leadership race, do you believe the "gang of five" rebel ministers were right to publicly criticize Premier Greg Selinger's leadership?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google