Health and Wellness

An 80-year-old doctor on why he refuses to retire anytime soon—'I plan to die in the office'

Carl Smith | Getty Images

At 80 years old, I still wake up and go to work every day. I'm a geriatrician — and it's a job that I've held for the past 55 years.

The average retirement age in the U.S. around 64. I'm way past that, but I don't plan on retiring anytime soon. Why? For starters, I happen to be among the lucky few who love the work they do. (I know I'm in the minority with this, so I do feel extremely grateful.)

As a doctor who specializes in the care of older adults, I get a lot of questions from people about retirement, specifically in relation to health and longevity. Here's what I tell them:

1. Seriously, why haven't you retired yet?

A reporter once asked me, "Isn't working past retirement associated with longevity?" This was during the 2007 to 2009 financial crisis, when many people had to work past their anticipated retirement due to investment losses.

I replied, "People everywhere are revising their retirement plans. In fact, I came up with my own plan that's pretty simple and guarantees that I won't outlive my assets." The reporter took the bait: "Really? What's that?"

"I plan to die in the office," I said.

All jokes aside, based on my personal experience and from what I've seen in my long geriatrics career, I think it's fair to say that many people continue to work because it gives them pleasure or is financially necessary.

I find happiness in my work for a lot of reasons. Geriatrics health professionals like me and my colleagues are experts in the type of care we'll all need as we age. I get to work with incredibly talented and collaborative people, and what we do is rooted in change that benefits everyone.

2. Does early retirement mean better physical and mental health?

Not always. Data behind whether or not later-life retirement is actually healthy are conflicting.

In a study of almost 430,000 people, an older retirement age was linked to a decreased risk of dementia. This was thought to be in line with the "use it or lose it" hypothesis, which suggests that cognitive decline related to age would be less likely to affect people who stay mentally active (in this case, working might help you stay sharp as you age).

Additionally, a 2019 Swedish study reported that people who work past 65 have a 7% chance of enjoying better health compared to those who retire at 65. However, retiring later didn't mean better physical fitness, and participants didn't report improved well-being or fewer symptoms of depression, the researchers found.

On the other hand, a 2010 study on thousands of British civil servants contradicted those findings, and suggested that people who voluntarily retired early enjoyed better mental health and physical functioning.

"Voluntarily retired" are the key words there, as there is evidence that mandatory retirement is not good for your health — no matter what your financial circumstances might be.

3. What impacts a healthy retirement?

Common sense tells us of three scenarios that can erode happiness and longevity. You may be less likely to enjoy a healthy older age if:

  1. You're forced to retire before you'd like due to performance issues or ageism.
  2. You need to work longer than you'd like because of your financial situation.
  3. Your retirement decision arises from health issues such as a serious illness.

Obviously, those who aren't healthy and active in their 60s or have lost some memory or thinking power may want to consider retiring earlier — say, anywhere from their early to mid-60s — if possible.

4. How do I make sure I'm not miserable in retirement?

Many people do end up very unhappy in retirement. But those in the opposite group do something differently: They don't sit on a beach all day. Instead, they constantly engage in healthy activities.

A few examples I recommend:

  • Signing up to volunteer. Maybe you cook, garden or enjoy reading to kids. Maybe you're a terrific driver, love animals or are handy with home repairs. You can turn your passion into a satisfying volunteer job in your local community. Studies have shown that people who volunteer reap the benefits of a sharper mind and healthier outlook.
  • Joining a book club. A book club can keep your brain healthy, while also helping to combat social isolation (which can be as dangerous as smoking). The idea is to read a lot of books and talk about them with other people, instead of just passively consuming what you've read.
  • Getting off the couch (and putting down the chips). Sitting on the couch all day is both physically and mentally bad for you. Take long walks, or even 10-minute walks three or four times a day. If you're used to a gym and now can't go, consider hiring a trainer or finding an online exercise class to follow from home.
  • Living within your means. You've worked hard to save for retirement. That's great. But it doesn't mean you no longer need to be mindful about spending. It's hard to enjoy retirement when you're constantly worried about running out of money.

5. Should I plan my retirement around life expectancy?

Our understanding of what it means to pursue "healthy aging" is constantly evolving. We used to think exclusively about lifespan. But now, and even more important, we think about health span.

There's a big difference between the two: Lifespan is how long you'll live, while health span is how long you'll live — while also being able to do things that are personally meaningful. Healthy aging is about much more than the absence of disease. It's also about our ability to live independently, safely and with a keen eye on what matters to us most as individuals, including when and how we "retire."

What that tells us is that retirement will look different for all of us; there's no hard-and-fast "date" to mark on your calendar, and there's no one right way to retire. You may need to continue working. Or you may not, but still want to, so you cut back to working just a few hours per week.

Supporting your health, safety and independence is really about striking a balance between what you want and what you need — with you as the focal point for your choices.

Richard W. Besdine, MD, is a Professor of Medicine and Health Services Policy and Practice at Brown University. He is a member and former president of the American Geriatrics Society. Dr. Besdine is a writer for HealthDay, and has also authored more than 125 publications on aging. He trained in internal medicine, infectious diseases and immunology at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital and Harvard Medical School. 

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