Working past age 65 is associated with better health, even after accounting for socioeconomic factors, such as education and income, or health behaviors, such as smoking, according to a study published late last week in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.
Ah, as someone who has just reached Medicare age and intends to keep working, this is a finding that warms the cockles (or cochlea cordis) of my still-healthy (knock on wood and keep biking) heart.
But, alas, once I started reading the study, I realized it does not — cannot — prove that working past 65 is good for our health. For the study’s findings come with some major caveats, as the authors themselves acknowledge.
In fact, the study offers a great lesson on the perils of putting too much weight on the findings from any observational study.
First, though, let’s look at how the study was done and what it found.
For the study, researchers at the University of Miami turned to the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which conducts annual face-to-face interviews with Americans of all ages on various health-related topics. They used data from a representative sample of more than 83,000 adults aged 65 or older who participated in the NHIS interviews during a 15-year period (1997-2011). The mean age of this sample group was 74.6 years. More than half (57 percent) were women, and most (82 percent) were white.
Slightly more than 87 percent of those 83,000 older people reported that they were either retired or unemployed. Of those who were still employed, two-thirds had white-collar jobs, while the rest were almost equally distributed between blue-collar and service jobs. A very small percentage worked on a farm.
After crunching the data, the researchers found that “[b]eing unemployed/retired was associated with the greatest risk of poor health across all health status measures, even after controlling for smoking status, obesity, and other predictors of health.”
In fact, the people in the study who had kept working after age 65 were almost three times more likely to report being in good health than those who had retired.
An unexpected finding
Interestingly, blue-collar workers who were still employed were about 15 percent less likely to report having multiple chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, than their white-collar peers.
“For older adults in more physically demanding occupations (such as service and blue collar) there might be a stronger healthy worker effect,” the study’s authors suggest. “As a result, healthier individuals are more likely to continue working, while those in poorer health are more likely to either exit the workforce or shift into less physically demanding white collar occupations.”
Other factors may also be involved. “For workers in jobs of lower socioeconomic status, employment can have stronger beneficial effect on health by increasing social support and income and by providing access to more comprehensive health insurance coverage,” the researchers add.
Now for the caveats. As an observational study, this one can demonstrate only a correlation between two things — in this case between working past age 65 and better health — not a cause-and-effect.
The authors themselves make that point. “This study used pooled cross-sectional data, and therefore causal inferences cannot be made,” they write.
A perfectly reasonable explanation for the study’s findings could be, of course, that people who are in poor health drop out of the work force by the time they reach 65.
Another major caveat: The participants in the study provided the information about their own health status. Relying on self-reports of people’s health (and of their health-related behaviors) is always a limiting factor in a study. Such reports may — or may not — be accurate.
An expanding segment of U.S. work force
Still, whether or not working past age 65 is good for our health, more of us are going to be doing it. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates that 22 percent of the U.S. workforce will be aged 65 or older by 2022.
“Older workers are a valuable addition to the workplace because they are on average just as productive as, are more careful and emotionally stable than, and have lower rates of absenteeism than their younger counterparts,” the study’s authors write.
Now there’s a conclusion that definitely warms my heart.
You can read the study in full on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Preventing Chronic Disease is an electronic journal published by the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Promotion.