Many of us dream about the day we retire—no longer getting up at the crack of dawn, trudging to the office and never quite leaving work because of constant email interruptions at home. But hold on. A recent University of Oregon study indicates that staying on the job in your later years may help you live a longer, healthier life. It turns out working past the traditional retirement age not only helps financially, but also benefits your health and longevity.
The results, which were published this year in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, analyzed an ongoing study of people age 50 and older. Those working as little as one year past age 65 had an 11 percent lower mortality risk than those who had retired and were in similar health. The researchers concluded that “early retirement may be a risk factor for mortality and [that a] prolonged working life may provide survival benefits.”
Another study, this time from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), noted that older working adults are healthier than their retired counterparts. The study uncovered a strong association with employment and health status even after accounting for education, income and lifestyle factors (Health Status of Older US Workers and Nonworkers, National Health Interview Survey, 1997-2001).
Both these studies confirm that staying mentally active, productive, having purpose and maintaining a strong social network of colleagues and friends makes a difference to our health. The CDC study also shows that older workers are emotionally more stable and have lower rates of absenteeism than their younger co-workers. Older workers have seen it all. They aren’t going to stress over the small stuff. When you don’t let stress get to you, your body responds in all sorts of positive ways including enjoying and appreciating the life you lead.
That’s why it seems we hear stories more and more about older workers who are thriving at their jobs well past their 70s and 80s. Take for example Astrid Thoenig. She’s 103 and still working full time at her son’s insurance company. Having a purpose in life, she says, keeps her happy.
SeeSee Rigney, at age 90, is the oldest working nurse in America. For 70 years, she’s been an operating room nurse at Tacoma General Hospital in Washington. Her secret? Keep learning and stay physically active all the time.
Then there is Ethel Lehmann. She’s retired, but at age 84, she’s still playing softball—her passion since she was a little girl. She formed a senior women’s softball league while in her 70s in Florida. It has won three gold, five silver and two bronze metals and the National Senior Games.
For older individuals who have already retired, staying physically active like Lehmann is another way, other than working, of remaining mentally sharp. Happily volunteering also causes a reaction in the brain that produces similar types of emotional and physical benefits as staying at a satisfying job.
Here’s why it works. Extensive brain-study research done by scientists such as Dr. Daniel Amen has demonstrated that what you think and feel will turn either on or off parts of your brain.
When you are experiencing positive thoughts and feelings—especially appreciation—your brain “turns on” and blood flows as it should throughout your brain. When this happens, you function at your very best. Your brain is functioning on all cylinders. You have no trouble focusing your thoughts. Your memory is sharp. You are motivated and energized. Your coordination is solid. You aren’t readily tweaked. You tolerate the bumps and hurdles of life more easily.
So there you have it. Contributing to society whether by working or volunteering leads one to appreciate and be grateful for the ordinary experiences of life, which in turn creates mental and physical well-being. Appreciation and gratitude are the secret ingredients that all happy long-lifers share. It’s a state of mind we should strive for no matter our age.
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Dr. Noelle Nelson