Is your New Year's resolution to retire in 2020? Here's how that might affect health

By American Heart Association News

kali9/E+, Getty Images
(kali9/E+, Getty Images)

Some people make resolutions to hit the gym more, others to eat healthier. But for some, retiring might be the top goal for the new year.

The first question many people have about retirement is, "What's it going to do to my finances?" An equally important question might be, "What's it going to do to my health?"

The answer is: It depends.

Financial retirement needs depend on a person's lifestyle and, according to a recent analysis by the website, vary greatly depending on where you live. In Mississippi, a comfortable retirement will run about $53,000 a year. In Hawaii, it's close to $118,000 annually.

And when it comes to health, answers are all over the map as well.

A recent study of Dutch civil servants found men responding to an early retirement offer were 2.6 percentage points less likely to die over the next five years than those who did not retire early. But another study saw a 2% increase in deaths among American men immediately after age 62, the age at which they become eligible for Social Security.

Pinning down the effects of retirement on a specific health issue, such as heart disease, is also tricky.

An extensive British review of studies on the issue found retirement had "no significant effect" on cardiovascular disease in the United States or France, but a negative effect in other parts of Europe. Researchers, publishing in The Gerontologist, pointed out that none of the studies they looked at found any beneficial effects of retirement on cardiovascular disease, and only a few suggested retirement reduced risk factors for it.

What makes the connection between retirement and health so difficult to pinpoint? Devon Gorry, an assistant professor of economics at Clemson University in South Carolina, explained that many people retire because of health issues. And it's hard to separate those people out.

"So, it's not necessarily that retirement causes the health issues, but that negative health caused the retirement," she said.

Gorry co-authored an analysis that focused on more than 10,000 people taking part in the national Health and Retirement Study. It concluded people tend to be happier at retirement. They say their health improves and things actually get better in the years that follow.

"Four years down the road, we start to see improvements in functional limitations – things like, 'Do you have trouble getting out of bed? Can you walk a set of stairs? Can you walk across the room?' These sorts of things," Gorry said.

What's more, people report improvements in life satisfaction immediately – and those improvements endure.

"It doesn't fade away after the initial retirement joy," she said. "It seems to be a long-lasting effect."

These are, of course, averages. Everybody's different, she said.

"When we present our research, we come across a lot of stories of, 'Well my uncle retired, and he was totally unhappy and ended up going back to work,'" Gorry said. "And surely I don't doubt that. I think there are individual differences."

Her study didn't look into exactly why health and well-being improved, but it noted earlier findings that retirees exercise more, have less stress, sleep better, reduce smoking and spend more time preparing food at home.

Gorry is working on follow-up studies to provide her own explanations.

One possible answer to the secret to a retirement that's both happy and healthy might lie in a separate paper, which analyzed the Health and Retirement Study to look at the connection between death and having a sense of purpose.

The researchers, writing in JAMA Network Open, concluded people without a strong life purpose – as measured by how they responded to a set of questions – were more likely to die than those who had one. There was a specific link between low life purpose and death from heart, circulatory and blood conditions.

Sense of purpose was defined as "a self-organizing life aim that stimulates goals." But as study co-author Celeste Leigh Pearce of the University of Michigan School of Public Health previously told AHA News, "There's no one-size-fits-all. I think that what's unique about life's purpose is that the way it manifests for each person is different."

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