Early Retirement either kills you or makes you live longer

What are the early retirement health odds? Is early-retirement good for your health or a death sentence? We’ve seen different headline stories recently that suggest opposite results. Early retirement just might kill you. Or you may live longer. Maybe. Don’t you love it when the experts disagree?

All three articles summarize research.

It Depends

But what the research really says, is, “It depends.”

What are the early retirement health odds? About a third of Americans claim early-retirement from Social Security at age-62. The increase in early death is most pronounced for men. Men claiming early-retirement have a 20% increase in the risk of death. Scary right? Think this answers the early retirement health odds?

Let’s return to statistics 101. Correlation is not the same as causation. Frakt points out that it is remarkably difficult to interpret observational statistics,

“Teasing out the causal effect of retirement on health isn’t straightforward. After all, some people retire precisely because they are in declining health. Without careful analysis, you might conclude that retirement causes poor health and an earlier death.”

The problems arise from the built-in bias of the observed group. The groups are not randomized like in an experiment. Those retiring early suffer from self-selection. If we retire early because we’re already sick or in physical decline we’re not comparing apples-to-apples. The higher health-risk (morbidity in research lingo) and thus higher death-risk (mortality) may be a cause of early-retirement. Not vice versa.

Or there may be other hidden factors to blame for either or both observed results, early-retirement and increased frequency of death.

But it’s not quite so bleak as all that. Remember, statistics lie. Or was that, liars use statistics? Could be both. Equivocating again.

It’s Not When You Retire, But What You Do in Retirement

The real lesson, according to Frakt’s survey of the literature, is that the critical question is not when you retire, but what you do with the time.

If you use early-retirement to exercise more and replace or improve work with other social connections and purpose, early-retirement is good for you. It can dramatically improve both longevity and quality-of-life.

In other words, you can change the probabilities. The early retirement health odds can be tipped in your favor.

This magic combination is the successful aging nirvana of living longer with fewer chronic health challenges. In research lingo, compressed morbidity, or more simply a shorter period of bad health at the end-of-life.

High Wealth, High Health, High Purpose

And this is the tie into Aging with Freedom’s motto, High Wealth, High Health, High Purpose. For us:

  • High wealth is enough income and resources necessary for freedom to choose when to retire and to fund a successful Third Act (previously known as retirement).
  • High health allows us the freedom to enjoy our Third Act. And,
  • High purpose assures the emotional and social preconditions to choose happiness over loneliness and isolation. Turns out serving something bigger than yourself is really important to both health and longevity. We’re social animals. We need to help the team.

So, the research supports the importance of good exercise and nutrition to promote longevity and quality-of-life (health status). But the research also supports the importance of purpose and social connections to enjoy any wealth or health. Your early retirement health odds are really up to you.

It’s what you do in early-retirement that counts more than when you retire. More exercise, better nutrition, more purpose, more community or social involvement? Better odds. Better outcomes for our Third Act.

Best advice I ever received. There comes a point when the time you have left is more important than the time you spend preparing for it. I got off the treadmill at age 60 and it’s the best decision I ever made.

— TyroneShoelaces of Hillsboro, Oregon

Comments — The Best Part

Finally, it’s often fun, even enlightening, to read the comments to an article. The comments are often the best part. They frequently feature additional insights, pathos, and humor.

Some of our favorite quotes from the New York Times comments section highlight concern over especially the high wealth part of our equation. Adequate wealth or income appears increasingly out of reach to many based on the comments. Interesting result, especially given the self-selection of Times readers. We’re pretty certain that Times readers and commentators on average have more degrees (letters after their names) and enjoy(ed) higher-income than the average American. So these quotes are illuminating. The commenters are worried about retirement, whether early or ever.

What Money?

“My generation. . . will be working until the lunch before our funeral,” Anna from Brooklyn.

JAL from San Francisco chimes in, “Financially I am set for life. Providing that I die next week.

I don’t think most can afford to retire early OR live longer,” observes Cherie of Salt Lake City.

Mr. Obvious makes an appearance under the pseudonym, Blip from St. Paul, “Gosh, I should have thought of that before blundering irrevocably into the ‘work until I die because I will be able to afford to retire just after hell freezes over’ option. Whoops!

Gary Warner of Los Angeles adds a dose of anger, “Getting from 50 to a time when Medicare and Social Security kick in is a slog experienced by millions of Americans. That the retirement age is being pushed later shows the federal government’s disconnect with reality. That the Times continually talks of retirement as voluntary for workers over 50 is laziness.”

See our article,  Retire at 62 reviewing and summarizing Teresa Ghilarducci’s book, How to Retire with Enough Money: And How to Know What Enough Is She makes the point that you need to be prepared to retire at age-62 because the “when” is frequently not up to you, no matter what you intend.

Jane Glascock of Seattle calls upon her inner statistician to make an important point, “I’d wager that none of these studies use subjects’ wealth as a covariate. More financial resources mean better health, and better health means more exercise, less smoking and drinking and so forth.

What Choices?

Pamela L. from Burbank chooses wisdom over anger, “It all comes down to choice. If you choose to be happy and live within your means, exercise at whatever level you feel comfortable and eat healthy foods, you can live well. While there are no guarantees in life, it’s fairly safe to say that doing a few things wisely might add years to your life. At the very least, it won’t hurt you. Choose to be informed, connected and caring. And, give to others.

Keeping active and developing healthy habits are good ideas,” agrees K from Washington. But most of us don’t listen.

Roger Geyer of Central Kentucky warns not to assume that success is just a matter of luck, “Since when is hard work, ongoing training, frugality, wise and consistent investing, etc. all luck?” Financial outcomes are also influenced by consumption choices through life.

In a similar vein, Ron Dong of Nashville advises, “Kids: study hard, get good grades, and find a career you can tolerate that pays really well. None of this ‘follow what you love’ nonsense.

Other Factors

Your prior work also matters, “In the States, those who retire early tend to be in certain professions or industries. Those who are involved in mental labor as against menial labor tend to work years after retirement age,” observes Elizabeth from Cincinnati.

The early retirement health odds vary based upon personal history.

Theodore of Paterson, NJ points out that other factors are in play, “Being able to take care of oneself in retirement is just a subset of being able to care for oneself throughout one’s life. Within the cohort of retirees who actually worked most of their lives, those who retire early are those who have managed their finances such that they could retire early. Those who are able to manage their finances successfully, in general, have personal skills and behaviors which enable them to better control all aspects of their lives, [including healthy behaviors in retirement].

Yatin J. Patel, MD MBA of Goshen, Indiana adds a practitioner’s insight, “Over last three decades of my medical practice, I have routinely seen patients aging ten years in just one year after retirement. Rarely, have I seen patients sleeping better, exercising more, losing weight, and getting off their medications after retirement. . . My advice to my patients: Too much work is bad. Retirement is worse. Work thirty hours a week doing what you love and cherish this wonderful gift called life. Bliss. Love. Live.

Early Retirement Health Odds Best Advice

Jay from Rosendale did a good job summarizing the importance of what you do in retirement to longevity and health, “Many people I know who have retired seem to have come down with ARLS (Age-Related Laziness Syndrome). They think that retirement is the time to take life as easy as possible. One friend proudly showed me his monstrous, puffy reclining chair in front of a huge flat-screen TV.” And contrasted this invited decline from inactivity with a successful centenarian, “. . . who remained active and productive. She commented on her continuing abilities by saying, ‘I figure if I could do it yesterday, I can probably still do it today.’”

Cedarman from Sante Fe could write for us, “It’s actually quite simple. Retirement, like life, is what you make it. Of course, good health makes it easier to do things. . . Before you retire, you need to think about how you are going to use your time. After all, you are going to have an additional eight hours to fill. It’s up to you to make your retirement a good experience.

Do what you can to improve your early retirement health odds.

And maybe the clearest answer was from TyroneShoelaces of Hillsboro, Oregon, “Best advice I ever received. There comes a point when the time you have left is more important than the time you spend preparing for it. I got off the treadmill at age 60 and it’s the best decision I ever made.