Many people assume that the relaxed lifestyle that accompanies earlier retirement can benefit their health. On the contrary, research has suggested that retiring early may be associated with negative health effects. In some cases, this is due to the illness that prompted early retirement. But even healthy retirees do not necessarily enjoy continued good health compared to their working peers.

A new study published October 20, 2005 in the British Medical Journal’s Online First section followed retirees from the petrochemical industry and found that people who retired at age 55 or 60 did not live longer than those retiring at 65. In fact, the findings suggested that retiring at age 55 may increase the risk of an earlier death.

About the Study

Researchers followed over 3,500 employees (11% women; 89% men) of Shell Oil who retired at ages 55, 60, and 65. All participants were followed from the age of 65 for up to 26 years. The researchers used information from the National Death Registry and Social Security Administration to track which participants died.

After the researchers adjusted for factors thought to affect survival (e.g., sex, employment grade), they found that the participants over 65 who retired at age 55 were significantly more likely to die than those who retired at age 65. Participants who retired at ages 60 and 65 had similar risks of death.

The researchers were not able to distinguish between participants who retired early due to poor health from those who retired early for different reasons. This limitation is likely to account for at least some of the increased risk of death among participants who retired at age 55. Furthermore, these findings should not be generalized to all retirees , since the study only looked at mostly male retirees of the petrochemical industry.

How Does This Affect You?

These findings suggest that opting to retire before age 65 may not increase your lifespan. And they further suggest that retiring at age 55 may actually increase the risk of death after age 65 (although the study’s limitations indicate further study into this issue is warranted).

Why doesn’t earlier retirement increase your lifespan? After all, retirement eliminates a major stressor from your life—work. This study could not say why retirement affects health, but it is plausible that the financial worries and changes in role and identity associated with retirement may be harmful.

If you are considering early retirement, take the time to plan your life as a retiree. Do not underestimate the importance of lifelong participation in purposeful, rewarding activities. Volunteerism and other social contributions are not just for killing time; they may actually create time to enjoy your retirement in good health.