So what is likely to happen to you? The scientific studies on the health effects of retirement are mixed, even contradictory. Designing such studies is difficult because retirees are usually older than workers and the conditions that are typically measured, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and arthritis, become more common as people age.
For instance, in 1983 researchers assessed the effects of retirement on 638 men ages 55 to 73 as part of a Department of Veterans Affairs effort called the Normative Aging Study. Overall, the physical health of the men worsened over the three to four years they were followed, but no difference was found between those who were still working and those who had retired.
A 2010 British study of more than 7,500 civil servants found, on average, the mental health scores and physical functioning of retirees were better than those of working people of similar age.
The research isn’t always rosy. A 2012 study followed 5,422 men and women age 50 and older for up to 10 years and found a
40 percent increased risk of stroke and heart attacks among those who had retired compared with those who had continued working; this effect was strongest in the first year of retirement.
Some studies have tested the idea that stopping work can lead to depression or other mood disorders.
A 2011 study of 7,138 Finnish retirees found that among people who retired because of age, the prevalence of antidepressant use fell by about 1 percent from one year before to one year after retirement. In people who retired due to mental health issues, antidepressant use decreased by about 9 percent in the same period.
David Ekerdt, director of the University of Kansas Gerontology Center in Lawrence and co-author of the 1983 VA study, says that since the 1950s, people have been trying to show that retirement is stressful, bad for health and destructive to people’s sense of self. But “the evidence, when you pile it up, says that’s just not the case,” he says.
When ill health follows retirement, it’s tempting to conclude that one caused the other. The coincidental timing of two things that happen as people age complicates the research, Ekerdt says. He likes to tell the story of legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, who died of a heart attack barely a month after he retired. But Bryant had been dealing with serious cardiovascular health issues for three years by then. “Bryant’s physicians were telling him to retire or he would be dead,” Ekerdt says.