05/16/2013 04:30 EDT | Updated 07/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Retirement Bad For Health, Free-Market Think Tank Suggests

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A study out of the U.K. suggests that while it may provide an initial sense of relief and well-being, over the long-term, retirement is bad for your health, increasing the likelihood of developing depression and at least one physical illness.

The study, titled "Work Longer, Live Healthier," was conducted by the Institute of Economic Affairs, which advocates a free-market ideology and the idea that "society's problems and challenges are best dealt with by individuals, companies and voluntary associations interacting with each other freely without interference from politicians and the state."

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The study's author, Gabriel H. Sahlgren, a research fellow at the institute, analyzed data from a survey of 11 European countries that sampled 7,000 to 9,000 people between the ages of 50 and 70 using two separate methodologies.

He found that retirement had a "consistent negative impact" on physical health that worsens as the number of years spent in retirement increase.

Short-term boost to health doesn't last

Sahlgren found that when comparing older people who were still working with those who were retired, retired people were 39 per cent less likely to assess their own health as "very good" or "excellent"; 41 per cent more likely to suffer from depression; 63 per cent more likely to have at least one physical condition; and 60 per cent more likely to be taking medication for such a condition.

"Old people benefit from continuing some form of paid work for longer instead of retiring entirely," he concluded.

The study did not find any significant differences between women and men when it came to self-assessments of health but did find the negative effect on mental and physical health was slightly higher for women. It did not examine whether the effects on health are different depending on the type of work — manual labour versus office work, for example.

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Sahlgren also analyzed past studies on the subject of retirement and health and found that their results were mixed, with some finding a positive impact and others a negative or neutral one. The researcher attributes these varied results largely to a failure to distinguish short-term effects from long-term ones and to take the length of retirement into account.

In the short term, retirees may experience a boost to health, he says, but this is outweighed by the negative impacts that manifest over the medium and long term.

'Untangling' cause and effect difficult

Sahlgren acknowledges that there are many variables in any one individual's retirement that can often have contradictory effects on physical and mental health. Retirement can decrease work-related pressures and stress, for example, but it can also cut retirees off from the social networks they formed at work and lead to greater isolation, which can negatively affect health. By contrast, it can lead to more leisure time, which can result in new non-work-related social contacts or more participation in physical activities that positively affect health and well-being.

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"Untangling cause and effect in the relationship between retirement and health is very difficult," Sahlgren admits.

On balance, however, the negative effects are significant enough to warrant policy interventions, he argues.

"Whereas the short-term impacts of retirement on health is somewhat uncertain, the longer-term effects are consistently negative and large," he writes.

Longer life expectancies have not translated into a commensurate extension of working life, Sahlgren says, and in OECD countries, a smaller share of older people are employed today than was the case 50 years ago. This is bad for the economy, bad for government finances and people's savings, and now, Sahlgren says his evidence suggests it's also bad for people's health.

Generous pensions an 'impediment'

Removing "impediments to continuing paid work in old age" would have a positive economic impact not only on government coffers and personal finances, Sahlgren says, but also, given his study's findings, would reduce health-care costs and improve individuals' health outcomes. "Impediments" to working longer are, in Sahlgren's view, things like low official retirement ages, generous state pensions, disability provisions that encourage retirement rather than reintegration into the labour force and employment protection legislation that renders older people less attractive to employers.

"This does not necessarily mean that people should be expected to work full time until they die, but rather that public policy should remove the strong financial incentives to retire at earlier ages," he writes.

Many governments already seem to be moving in that direction. Retirement ages have been inching up across North America and Europe in recent years. Canadians are working at least two years longer than workers did just a decade ago, according to Statistics Canada figures, and the Conservative government has announced that it will raise the age of eligibility for Old Age Security benefits to 67 from 65 starting in 2023 and has increased the age at which public sector workers and MPs can begin to collect their pensions.

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