Could Delaying Retirement Be Great For Your Health?

Sep 24, 2015
Originally published on September 25, 2015 2:34 pm

He's been at it for 45 years. Wake up before 2 a.m. Turn on the fryer. And have the glazed doughnuts and peanut-topped coffeecakes ready by 6 a.m.

Yup, Michael Doucleff Sr. is a baker and small-business owner in Alton, Ill.

At at age 70, he doesn't show many signs of slowing down. He's still working more than 40 hours a week, still carrying 50-pound bags of flour upstairs from the basement.

"You've got to wake up sometime in the morning — might as well have a purpose," Doucleff says. "I think I still contribute to society. For me, that's enjoyable."

Despite having an autoimmune disease, Doucleff is in pretty good shape. No heart disease. No diabetes. And sharp as a tack.

Doucleff is my father-in-law. And in our family, he's one of the healthiest for his age — and one of the hardest workers.

That might not be a coincidence.

A study published Thursday in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease finds that working in one's 60s and 70s is associated with better physical and mental health.

"There's something about the aging process — that if you stay working, then you stay hardy," says University of Miami epidemiologist Alberto Caban-Martinez, who contributed to the study.

Caban-Martinez and his colleagues analyzed survey data from more than 85,000 adults age 65 and older. (The mean age was around 75.) In general, people who kept working were nearly three times as likely to report being in good health than those who had retired.

Compared with white-collar workers, blue-collar workers still on the job were 15 percent less likely to report multiple chronic diseases, like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. And all types of workers reported better mental health, compared with those who were retired or unemployed.

"Not to encourage workaholics, but there's something to be said about part-time or full-time work," Caban-Martinez says. "And there's not much difference whether you're in the service sector or you're a white-collar worker."

But the study does come with a big caveat. It couldn't determine whether working leads to good health or if it's good health that keeps people working.

"It's kind of the chicken or egg problem," Caban-Martinez says. "Maybe poor physical health is not allowing people to be in the workforce."

Still, other research has shown that being active and socially engaged helps prevent problems as we age, Caban-Martinez says. "Maybe the workplace is giving you the physical activity that keeps you mentally and physically healthy."

And it likely doesn't take much, he says. Getting up early and making sure the bakery is open and running smoothly is certainly enough.

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More Americans are working longer into their 60s and even their 70s, and that might actually be great for our health. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports on a new study.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: When I read this study, the first thing I thought of was my father-in-law. For 45 years, Michael Doucleff Sr. has woken up before 2 a.m., turned on the fryer and started making donuts, baking bread, filling pies.

MICHAEL DOUCLEFF: I'm constant, constant, constant motion.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF: Yep. Michael is a baker. And at age 70, he still loves his job.

MICHAEL DOUCLEFF: I think if you slow down and quit, just go to the fishing hole and fish, you just don't have that constant interaction that keeps you young, keeps you energized. It keeps you mentally sharp.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF: Turns out Michael is onto something. The new study from the University of Miami shows that not retiring reduces your risk of chronic diseases and is linked to better mental health.

ALBERTO CABAN-MARTINEZ: There's something about remaining engaged in the workforce that seems to be protective for cognitive decline - so for example, maybe memory, you know, spacial memory - where I left things or remembering to do things.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF: That's epidemiologist Alberto Caban-Martinez. He and his colleagues studied more than 85,000 adults over age 65. Blue-collar workers were 15 percent less likely to report problems like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. All workers reported better mental health. The study is in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease. It didn't show working causes better health, but Caban-Martinez says other research has shown that being active prevents problems as we age.

CABAN-MARTINEZ: Maybe, you know, the workplace or your employment is actually giving you some of this activity to keep you both mentally and physically healthy.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF: And he says it doesn't take much, perhaps just getting up and making sure the bakery opens on time.

Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.