Want to Live Longer ? Just Keep on Working
Studies show you’re likely to live longer if you retire after 65
Numerous studies show that retirees have a higher mortality rate than people of the same age who continue working. A study of past employees of Shell Oil published by the British Medical Journal showed that average life expectancy improved as retirement age increased regardless of socioeconomic group. The Shell researchers discovered that employees who retired at 55 and lived to at least 65 died younger than employees who delayed retiring until they were 65. Specifically, those who retired earlier had a 37% higher mortality rate after the age of 65 than those who retired at 65.
Not every type of work produces maximum health benefits, however. First, the work must be fulfilling and give the person doing it a sense of worth. Second, it must not be mentally stressful or physically demanding for extended periods. If it is, the metaphorical needle tips towards the unhealthy side of the meter.
For some time, scientists have tried to explain this work/health relationship. An increasing number now believe that, among other things, it can be explained by the subtle effects certain kinds of exertion have on the body and the mind. Recent experiments carried out by the Mayo Clinic show that the health of older people’s mitochondria — the cellular bodies vital in converting food into energy — improves significantly when they undertake a controlled intense physical exercise regime that pushes them beyond the “comfort” zones. Microscopic examination of the subjects’ cells before and after the exercise program showed that it interrupted the cells’ normal aging process.
Just as those kinds of physical exercise programs can slow the body’s aging process, tough mental exercise can slow normal age-related cognitive decline. Studies carried out in 2016 by the Massachusetts General Hospital found that a test group of older people with exceptional cognitive ability had significant differences in their brains compared to the majority of people of the same age group. The study compared the cognitive ability of the older group with that of a group of active, healthy 25-year-olds and found that the older group’s cognitive score was as good as that of the younger one. The older people showed none of the cognitive decline experienced by most people of a similar age. Apart from cognitive tests, the medical team examined the subjects’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Certain regions of most older people’s brains atrophy, i.e. they become thinner. The brains of the older group in the Massachusetts study, however, showed no such atrophy. They were as healthy as those of the 25-year-olds.
Some of these very mentally alert older people were still working long after normal retirement age, but not all. Some hadn’t worked for years. What they all had in common, however, was that they constantly pushed their brains to perform challenging mental tasks, and they had done so for many years.
These two studies among others suggest that the kind of physical and mental effort demanded by most jobs helps keep people healthy. The benefit can fade after retirement, when the relentless daily effort is no longer compulsory and people tend to take it easy. Retired people, however, can still get the fitness benefits they got from working, if they’re determined and disciplined. They should create a daily regime of both challenging physical and mental exercises, the kind that tax the body and the mind, and stick with it.
The ideal kinds of physical exercises include most resistance training. As for appropriate mental exercises, many fit the bill. Two effective ones are learning to play a musical instrument or learning a new language. Both are mentally challenging, but as well as contributing to brain health, they also provide pleasure and a satisfying sense of achievement.
For retirees, these physical and mental exercises are effective substitutes for most of the health benefits of working. They may not provide a pay check, but for most people, knowing that their physical exercise and learning programs are improving their health is more valuable than money. In any case, they do benefit financially since, a healthy person has lower medical expenses.