This is the provocative title of a Freakonomics podcast from 2013. Let’s face it: we all know stories of people who worked 30 or 40 years, retired, and died from a heart attack a short time later. Because the death closely followed retirement, we have a tendency to assign causation to the retirement. But that doesn’t really follow logically. We have also heard stories of people who died before they retired. I have never heard “he died because he was still working” which is the same logic applied to the earlier death.
Early Death and Later Death
For some reason, I have recently spoken to a few different doctors who have shared their observations that there are early causes of death and later causes of death. Apparently there are some people genetically disposed to be more susceptible to cancers, heart attacks, and other diseases that kill them in their 50’s and early 60’s. Mortality data indicate that if you make it to 65, you have a good shot at making it to 80, when the later causes of death start to assert themselves. Perhaps the anecdotes about the guys (all the stories I have heard involve men, not women) dying after retirement were just unlucky. They drew the genetic short straw and were going to have the heart attack whether they retired or kept working anyway.
Life is a Gift
Ultimately, the mortality rate is 100%, right? If everyone dies at some point, is it silly to assign blame to work or retirement? If we all die anyway, why agonize over any lifestyle choice? Here’s why: The Beer and Peanuts philosophy is that life is a gift and we should do everything we can to live as rich and full a life as possible. Further, we believe that most people are most satisfied when their lives have purpose, meaning, and social contact. Work often provides those things. A well planned and executed retirement can, too. So, what did the Freakonomics team conclude about retirement’s effect on mortality?
Smokes and Booze
They based their show on research published in a European economics journal called Vox. The authors of the paper found a natural experiment from Austria where some blue collar workers were offered early retirement packages. The researchers were able to gain access to medical and mortality data on the early retirees, as well as a control group of workers who remained employed until normal retirement age. The early retirees did suffer from poor health and earlier death than those who worked longer. Additionally, there were significantly higher rates of inactivity, alcoholism, and depression. The study’s authors note that for men in the study, “32.4% of the causal retirement effect can be directly attributed to smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.” They conclude “our results suggest that early retirement does not only adversely affect government budgets. Early retirement may also have adverse consequences by increasing individuals’ mortality risk.”
So, here is my takeaway: Retirement doesn’t kill, but a poorly planned retirement – one without purpose, meaning and social contact – can kill you early.