Dreams of early retirement fuel many a worker, but two recently published studies suggest retirement may be bad for your health. Findings revealed that it negatively impacts both your mental and physical health.

Both studies drew on data from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), a database of microdata on health, socio-economic status and social and family networks of more than 85,000 individuals, aged 50 or over, from 19 European countries and Israel. Centrally coordinated at the Munich Center for the Economics of Aging (MEA), SHARE is harmonized with the U.S. Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and, boasting more than 150,000 interviews, has become a model of retirement studies.

Sahlgren's Study

Gabriel Sahlgren, research fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, sought to examine the relationship between health and the number of years spent in retirement.

Motivated by the mixed literature and especially by perceived flaws in multi-country research, his paper presented new statistical analysis to determine the health effects of retirement. In his analysis, microlevel data from SHARE from 11 European countries was used. These countries include Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and Sweden. Sahlgren's sample size amounted to about 7,000 to 9,000 individuals, aged between 50 and 70, at the time of the first interview.

Notably, in contrast to prior research, his paper analyzed the effects of being retired as well as the number of years spent in retirement.

Sahlgren's study, aptly titled "Work longer, live healthier," found that the short-term impact of retirement on health appears somewhat uncertain - though previous studies have indicated retirement has positive short-term effects - but the longer-term effects are negative and large.

Being retired decreases physical, mental, and self-assessed health, Sahlgren noted. Significantly, the adverse effects increase as the number of years spent in retirement increases.

"It is possible that health will initially improve when somebody retires and then, after a while, start to deteriorate due to reduced physical activity and social interaction," wrote Sahlgren.

More specifically, Sahlgren concluded that retirement increases the probability of having at least one diagnosed physical condition by about 60 percent while also increasing the probability of taking a drug for such a condition by the same percentage.

"It actually seems that we get a lot of benefits out of work that perhaps we don't really realize at the time; a social network with our work colleagues, for a lot of people a high proportion of the physical exercise that they get each week might very well be travelling to and from work..." said Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free market think tank based in London.

Further, Sahlgren's results show that ceasing paid employment increases the probability of suffering from clinical depression by about 40 percent. Plus, retirement decreases the likelihood, also by about 40 percent, of someone assessing him or herself as being in "very good" or "excellent" health.

"Being in paid employment tends to make you richer and being a bit more affluent helps with being healthy too," said Littlewood.

"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," said Sahlgren.

Université de Liège Study

Another recent study, conducted in Belgium by researchers at the Université de Liège, investigated the relationship between the concept of activity (including both professional and nonprofessional) and cognitive functioning, among older European individuals.

The conclusion? All activities are positively related to cognitive functioning in elderly people.

Along with data collected from SHARE, researchers employed a measurement approach known as stochastic frontier analysis, derived from economic literature. After controlling for extraneous variables (such as gender), this study concluded that all types of occupational activity, both professional and nonprofessional, clearly have a positive effect on cognitive functioning.

The authors noted that their work has been influenced by a growing body of evidence that indicates aging is accompanied by a systematic decline in performance of a variety of cognitive tasks, observed both in the laboratory setting and in everyday life. "For instance, it is widely accepted that age influences several general factors, such as processing speed, inhibition, and working memory, which in turn affect other cognitive functions, such as episodic memory and language," wrote the authors.

With an understanding that this age-related cognitive decline is associated with structural changes in the brain, such as cerebral atrophy, ventricular enlargement, and hippocampal atrophy, the authors noted that such changes are not evident in all individuals. And if the underlying pathologic basis of cognitive decline is the loss of synapses, neurons, neurochemical inputs, and neuronal networks, nature provides many examples of elderly people who maintain cognitive vitality, even in extreme old age. Thus, cognitive decline is not inevitable.

The authors suggested further research is necessary to clarify the effect of retirement on cognitive functioning by taking into account other factors, including type of employment (manual labor versus intellectual work) and whether retirement is voluntary or forced.

Being active, then, is important for elderly people, though the research remains unclear as to what constitutes a constructive activity for an elderly person and which activities should be implemented. For instance, is it more beneficial to work in a group or independently? Is it better to do new activities or old ones? Do all activities have the same impact on cognitive functioning?

Taking part in a religious organization, the authors found, has the least impact on cognitive performance while educational training has the most.

Previous studies have suggested that individual brains possess varying degrees of "functional reserve." So, despite age-related changes to their brains, those with "high" functional reserve may continue to learn and adapt. Other studies have developed the parallel concept of "cognitive reserve," in which innate intelligence or aspects of life experience (occupation or education) provide a reserve that protects individuals from cognitive decline. For example, another study performed postmortem examination of 137 subjects.

Researchers were heartened to discover that ten subjects whose functional and cognitive performance had been as good as or better than that of a control group (those without brain pathology) showed the pathological features of mild Alzheimer's disease.

Sources: Sahlgren G.H. Work longer, live healthier. Institute of Economic Affairs Discussion Paper No. 46. 2013.

Adam S, Bonsang E, Grotz C, Perelman S. Occupational activity and cognitive reserve: implications in terms of prevention of cognitive aging and Alzheimer's disease. Journal of Clinical Interventions in Aging. 2013.