The pros and cons of working into your 90s

Published 1:50 PM EDT, Thu May 4, 2017

Story highlights

Many public figures have worked into their 70s, 80s and even 90s

Continuing to work well past retirement age has proven health benefits

(CNN) —  

Society often suggests that we should slow down in later life. With retirement, we can reflect on what we have achieved, get out to see the world and spend time with family.

Although some people continue to work into their 70s, 80s and even 90s, retirement age in many countries suggests they cut back around age 60 or 65.

But most research suggests that slowing down may not be the best option for your health.

“At first, there is a honeymoon period where people go on vacation and spend time with their grandchildren,” said professor Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist and director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research at Cornell University. “But it wears off.

“In general, people who engage in organized work have higher age of mortality,” Pillemer said. “Working leads to other outcomes that are beneficial.”

But he stresses that these benefits arise only when people have chosen to work longer, rather then being forced to do so for financial reasons. “For people who work involuntarily, it’s the opposite effect,” Pillemer said.

Here are the potential outcomes – and their effect on your health and well-being – if you keep working, even into your 90s.

Pro: Social integration

Continuing to have a routine and going into a place of work each day, or even every few days, can reduce the sense of isolation that could come with retirement, Pillemer said.

One study found that working after retirement was linked to how much people enjoyed their lives, with work having a “hedonic effect,” when included as part of their everyday activities.

After a lifetime of routine, friends (or maybe just colleagues) and human interaction, removing work from daily life can affect a person’s mental health and, in turn, their physical health.

Men and women find that loss of work can lead to a decline in social relationships, according to Pillemer. “But very active engagement has been found to promote social well-being,” he said, with this applying to both paid and voluntary work. “They remain socially integrated.”

With social interaction comes good mental health, in many respects.

“People who stay active socially, physically and intellectually have less chance of developing dementia,” said Dr. James Warner, an old-age psychiatrist at Imperial College London. He added that “the biggest single risk factor for becoming depressed in the elderly is social isolation.”

Both can be staved off, to some extent, in some people by continuing to work, he said.

A recent survey by the Center for Ageing Better in the UK supported this, with more than 1,300 people surveyed predominantly saying the main thing they missed about being at work were the social connections that came with it.

Pro: Economic well-being

By keeping older people in some form of employment, Pillemer believes, two problems are solved: the pension and retirement savings crisis, and the need to keep older people engaged.

Although there are challenges that come with being older and needing to adjust to whatever impact that may bring, “it’s much more of a challenge to be old and poor,” he said.

But he stressed that this depends on the quality of the work and that the financial gain coming from a job a person enjoys, finds exciting or rewarding, and generally wants to go each day.

“It’s difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle on an old age pension,” Warner added. Things like keeping the house warm, eating well and going on holidays require income at any age. These are all small things where a little extra money will benefit you, he said.

People also want autonomy and the ability to continue doing what they love and to learn new things, all of which also come with financial independence, said Patrick Thomson, senior program manager from the Center for Ageing Better. “With extra income, you also delay drawing down on your pension or savings,” he said.

Pro: Sense of purpose

Some factors that can stem from retirement, or ceasing to work, are a sense of “rolelessness” or a lack of purpose, Pillemer said. “This contributes to poor mental but also physical health,” he said.

A report by the Institute of Economic Affairs shows that being retired decreases mental and self-assessed health, with some results showing the probability of suffering from clinical depression increasing by 40%.

A UK study in 2014 of more than 9,000 people with an average age of 65 found a sense of meaning and purpose to be linked to a longer lifespan.

“The meaningfulness and sense of purpose that older people have in their lives are also related to survival,” said professor Andrew Steptoe, director of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, in a statement at the time. “the findings raise the intriguing possibility that increasing well being could help to improve physical health.”

He explained that many biological mechanisms in the body from people reporting a sense of well-being, such as hormonal changes and lower blood pressure, may be linked to improved health.

Pro: Physical well-being

In general, “people who don’t work much become unwell,” Warner said. But he adds that this continues into your older years, with retirees benefiting from the physical activity that comes with a job, even if just commuting to it and moving around once there.

“More manual types of work might be more problematic,” he said, highlighting that muscles weaken with age. But in general, all factors are tied in together, and physical fitness and activity will tie in to mental well-being and therefore happiness.

Con: Working when you don’t choose to

Pillemer, Warner and Thomson all agree that the multitude of benefits they described are predominantly relevant only to people choosing to work in their elder years. Working after retirement to make ends meet and to support yourself and your family has more negative outcomes.

“If you’re forced for economic reasons to work when you don’t want to … that’s not a good outcome,” Pillemer said.

Warner also highlights that people who are unable to work for health reasons may feel isolated, unhappy and distant if working into their older years becomes the norm. It could be the case as people are living longer and state retirement funds are struggling.

“It’s a balance,” Warner said. “It shouldn’t become an expectation. It should be encouraged.”

Con: Potential marital discordance

One negative Pillemer pointed out is the potential for marital imbalance if one partner in a relationship chooses to carry on working while another wants to retire in full. “A couple’s retirement goals can vary (and) interfere with marital quality,” he said.

He added that research has showed the worst combination to be when a wife is working while a husband is not. “But this may now be changing,” Pillemer said.

However, he added, it depends on the couple. Some may be fine in such a situation.

The rarity of working over 90

Although working until any advanced age – through choice – has generally been shown to improve physical and mental health, Pillemer said that people working in their 90s “is a real exception.”

“Over the age of 85, about half the people worldwide have some form of cognitive impairment,” he said.

The likelihood of impairment rises from 5% among 65-year-olds to 20% by the age of 75 and 50% by 85.

“By 90, the number of people who are able to do full-time work falls largely,” Pillemer said. “These are the super-agers.”

People who had better education, higher income and more social supports are likely to have an “accumulation of advantage” that benefits them into their 90s, Pillemer said – and they’re able to function better.

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“People who are doing really well at older ages often have had a lifetime of some advantage,” he said.

But in general, unless you’re forced to get out there and bring home some money, working has more pros than it does cons in your later years.

“All in all, if working as long as you are physically and mentally able, there are really no downsides,” he said.