Retiring Too Early Can Kill You

Retirees Mazi Caiazzo, left, and Micheline Barrey pass the time by making jewelry, at a retirement home for musicians in Milan, Italy on May 29, 2013. Ivan Guilbert/Cosmos/Redux

Cheryl Simmons is 63 years old and can't wait to go back to work. For the past five years, since her daughter left for college, she's been at home in Providence, Rhode Island, scrolling through the latest tech startup news on Twitter, gazing from afar as each Consumer Electronics Show passes by, wondering how she can become a part of it. She says she has no plans of following in the sauntering footsteps her parents took through retirement.

"I'm not someone who thrives on a lot of unscripted free time," says Simmons, a former investment manager and nonprofit organizer. "I like feeling like there's a place in the world for me to grow. [When her parents retired] my mother would join clubs, like bridge clubs, and my father would golf. But for me, that wouldn't have been enough."

Simmons has a great deal of company. According to a recent Gallup poll, the average age for retirement in 1991 was 57. In 2014, it was 62. Aging baby boomers are working longer than any previous generation—either out of preference or because of the financial difficulties of early retirement.

Either way, it's probably a good thing. Early retirement, it turns out, is bad for your physical and emotional health. The World Health Organization estimates that a suicide occurs every 40 seconds worldwide. The highest rates, for both men and women in almost all regions, are among those 70 and older.

In 2013, France's federal health agency INSERM studied dementia prevalence among 429,000 people. Controlling for the possibility that some people retired because of their dementia, they found that jumping ship at 60 increased your risk for the illness by about 15 percent, compared with those who waited an extra five years before hanging up their hats. They concluded that work keeps our brains young and fit. Meetings can be stressful, but binging on reruns is actually unhealthy.

Take Judy Uman. She is 76 and has been working for the Bronx Jewish Community Council in New York for the past 30 years. Uman started as a social worker in her 40s, "really in the old-fashioned sense of the word," mostly helping people to fill out forms, she says. Now she supervises a staff and runs many of the agency's programs, with zero interest in trading it for something slower. "What's keeping me around?" she says. "I really think [the work] keeps me young and vital, and I feel very connected to a lot of the people I have worked with over the years."

Fate and Fat

The health benefits and longevity that might become available to you by working into your septuagenarian years only accrue if you are reasonably fit. If trends hold, millennials won't be inheriting the rich, late-age lifestyles of their elders. We may have cut out some of the unhealthy habits of our grandparents—smoking rates have dropped precipitously, for example—but we've picked up others. For one thing, "people are fatter than they used to be," says Dr. James Fries, a professor of medicine emeritus at Stanford University. The best estimates suggest more than two-thirds of today's adults, or 68.8 percent, are overweight or obese.

Rates of child obesity are even more troubling, having grown from 7 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2012. Being overweight burdens the entire body and can even cut short a person's career. In 2009, a study published in Obesity found that overweight status at 25 and the eventual slide into obesity in middle age was associated with earlier retirement due to poor health. "They essentially have less vitality," Fries says of the younger generations, "because of the problems that go along with obesity."

Perhaps more important, climbing rates of Alzheimer's disease—and FaceTime replacing actual face time—are combining to make trouble upstairs, in the brain. In 2013, the nonprofit organization Alzheimer's Disease International shook the medical community with the prediction that by 2030 worldwide dementia rates will double, and by 2050, they will triple. Millennials are doomed to be the most dementia-racked generation ever. As it stands now, medical science has no tools to stem the tide of Alzheimer's; it can only watch as the disease overtakes its victims without mercy.

Compounding that are the deteriorating rates of social connection. One of the hallmarks of modern industry is its reliance on (and exploitation of) remote technology. Through a glass screen, we can interface and synergize with anyone, at any time. Logistically, this knocks down huge barriers for business to run smoothly. But when working from home isolates us from the eight-hour interactions we might be getting otherwise, our health pays a price. "The extent to which we lose [those interactions]," says Dr. Gary Kennedy, a geriatric psychiatrist, "we lose something very precious."

That precious something could be the most precious something. As young people traipse from job to job, feeling a loose sense of loyalty at each stop, their social lives traffic in the power of acquaintances—weak ties that may help land a job today but don't provide the emotional stability needed to stay lucid later on.

In the absence of rock-solid social ties, the human brain can fall into some pretty dark places. A study published in January in Work, Aging and Retirement looked at 1,200 workers from service, construction and manufacturing backgrounds, aged 52 to 75. It concluded that those without loved ones nearby and those whose health began to deteriorate were at a far greater risk for drug and alcohol abuse than people who stayed active. "Moreover," wrote study author Peter A. Bamberger, "particularly if individuals' health limits their involvement in meaningful postretirement activity, workforce disengagement results in social marginalization, isolation, and boredom."

In the first few weeks of retirement, free time might seem like a welcome respite. After a while, though, it can start to feel like a prison sentence: People no longer feel as if they get to relax all day, but have to. And so many of them are forced to do it alone.

Fries shies away from overprescribing how to live healthfully in old age. "I'm always suspicious of people trying to find formulas that everybody ought to be doing," he says. But there are still fundamental boxes older adults need to be checking in order to live out their golden years in good health. They need to stay physically active, whether it's daily stretching or powerlifting competitions, and they need to stimulate their brains, ideally in the presence of others. These basics have so far eluded millennials. But changing this ill tide is possible, Fries says, so long as people keep their priorities in check. "You just gotta be alive to stay alive."