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Is Retirement Bad for Your Health?

by Louis J. Wasser

It is better to live rich than to die rich. Samuel Johnson

The comedian Jack Benny, known for his radio and TV persona as a cheapskate, occasionally performed a skit in which he was approached by a robber on the street.  The robber held a gun to Benny’s face and said “your money or your life!”  Benny would then go stone-cold silent.  The robber then repeated his demand more urgently:  “you don’t seem to get it, Buddy.  I just said ‘your money or your life.’”  Whereupon Benny would finally blurt out his answer:  “I’m thinking about it!”

As it turns out, Benny’s choice — or at least the one between retiring and holding on to your health (if not life itself, as with Benny) — is the subject of a provocative new longitudinal study of 26,000 Americans over 50 released by the University of Michigan, and sponsored by the National Institute of Aging.  The study is comprehensive, but you can read a recap of it by writer Ina Jaffe at National Public Radio’s website.

After looking at the data in the study, economist Dhaval Dave points out that people who retire often experience bouts of depression, arthritis, and high blood pressure.  He concludes, “for the average American, we found negative effects on health.”  Susan Rohwedder, Associate Director for the Study of Aging at the Rand Corporation, also documents a decline in cognitive ability that’s frequently associated with retirement.

People who retire often experience bouts of depression, arthritis, and high blood pressure.

What’s one to do then?  Never retire?  Are retirees condemned to a life of hard work for threat of losing their health and mental acuity?   Are they faced with the agonizing choice that Jack Benny had to make in a comedy skit — that might ultimately have more serious ramifications?

We don’t think so.  Two weeks ago at this site, we discussed three noted Americans who made it past 100.  We suggested that their secret was to stay engaged, to maintain a strong sense of purpose, and to continue to do what they loved.  It comes down to the venerated recipe “use it or lose it.”  Jaffe suggests that the same dynamic is at work for two employees — a waiter and a bartender — at Hollywood’s noted Musso & Frank Grill.  One works part time, the other full time.  Both could retire today if they wanted, but they choose to work.  In both cases, they are stimulated by interacting with the famous stars who have patronized the Musso & Frank’s over the years, like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Johnny Depp.

A March 25, 2014 article in USA Today offers still other examples of people who could have retired but chose to work instead.  One of them is the comedian Marty Allen, who appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show the night Sullivan introduced the Beatles to America.  At 92, he still performs stand-up comedy with his wife.

There is a way out of the Jack Benny dilemma then.  Your money or your life?  You can have it all.  If you want to continue working, but would rather leave your current long-time employment, take retirement — and carve out an encore career for yourself.  Or take a part-time job.  But, at all costs, stay engaged! And that, my friends, is how you’ll remain healthy and sharp.

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