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.)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.