Work and live longer

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - SENIOR - By PETER ORSZAG

TEDDY Roo­sevelt once said “the best prize that life has to of­fer is the chance to work hard at work worth do­ing.” Re­cent re­search sug­gests he may have been more right than he knew: life’s “best prize” might ac­tu­ally ex­tend life it­self.

Our com­mon per­cep­tion is that re­tire­ment is a time when we can re­lax and take bet­ter care of our­selves af­ter stress­ful ca­reers. But what if work it­self is ben­e­fi­cial to our health, as sev­eral stud­ies sug­gest?

One of them, by Jennifer Mon­tez of Har­vard Univer­sity and Anna Za­ja­cova of the Univer­sity of Wy­oming, ex­am­ined why the gap in life ex­pectancy be­tween highly ed­u­cated and less-ed­u­cated Amer­i­cans has been grow­ing so rapidly.

Ex­am­in­ing the grow­ing ed­u­ca­tional gra­di­ent in life ex­pectancy from 1997 to 2006, Mon­tez and Za­ja­cova fo­cused on women aged 45 to 84. In ad­di­tion to dif­fer­en­tial trends in smok­ing by ed­u­ca­tion, they con­cluded that among these women “em­ploy­ment was, in and of it­self, an im­por­tant con­trib­u­tor”. The life ex­pectancy of less-ed­u­cated women was be­ing short­ened by their lower em­ploy­ment rates com­pared with those of highly ed­u­cated women.

The re­searchers tried to test whether the prob­lem was that lesse­d­u­cated people had worse health, and there­fore couldn’t work. But they found that “the con­tri­bu­tion of em­ploy­ment to di­verg­ing mor­tal­ity across ed­u­ca­tion lev­els is at least partly due to the health ben­e­fits de­rived from em­ploy­ment”.

Re­searchers at the In­sti­tute of Eco­nomic Af­fairs in Bri­tain have also re­cently iden­ti­fied “neg­a­tive and sub­stan­tial ef­fects on health from re­tire­ment.”

Their study found re­tire­ment to be as­so­ci­ated with a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in clin­i­cal de­pres­sion and a de­cline in self-as­sessed health, and that these ef­fects grew larger as the num­ber of years people spent in re­tire­ment in­creased.

Sim­i­larly, a study pub­lished in 2008 by the US Na­tional Bureau of Eco­nomic Re­search found that full re­tire­ment in­creased dif­fi­cul­ties with mo­bil­ity and daily ac­tiv­i­ties by 5% to 16% and, by re­duc­ing phys­i­cal ex­er­tion and so­cial in­ter­ac­tions, also harmed men­tal health.

The broader lit­er­a­ture on the ques­tion of whether re­tire­ment harms health has been more mixed. The big ques­tion is whether the ob­served phys­i­cal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion af­ter re­tire­ment oc­curs be­cause it is un­der­ly­ing poor health that leads people to end their work­ing life.

A 2007 paper by John Bound of the Univer­sity of Michi­gan and Ti­mothy Waid­mann of the Ur­ban In­sti­tute, find that re­tire­ment doesn’t harm health – and may ac­tu­ally im­prove it. An­other study, by Este­ban Calvo of Univer­si­dad Diego Por­tales in Chile, Natalia Sark­isian of Bos­ton Col­lege and Christo­pher Tam­borini of the So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, finds harm from early re­tire­ment but no ben­e­fit from de­lay­ing re­tire­ment be­yond the tra­di­tional age.

My own read­ing of all of these stud­ies is that there is at least strongly sug­ges­tive ev­i­dence that not work­ing, in and of it­self, can be harm­ful to your health. And this raises the ques­tion of what it means for the puz­zling find­ing that over­all life ex­pectancy ap­pears to rise, not fall, dur­ing re­ces­sions.

Now I’m only spec­u­lat­ing, but the an­swer could lie in the fact that, even dur­ing a re­ces­sion, most people still work. Be­cause a larger-than-usual mi­nor­ity don’t, pol­lu­tion is re­duced, traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties de­cline and the qual­ity of staffing at nurs­ing homes im­proves – and these changes boost the health of the people who are still work­ing. It’s ter­ri­ble to say, but the re­search seems to sug­gest that be­ing out of work yourself may hurt your health – but hav­ing other people out of work may help it.

Most of us seem to think that we would be in bet­ter health if we won the lot­tery and spent our days on the beach rather than strug­gling with some­times stress­ful jobs. Yet the next time you think your job is killing you, just re­mem­ber that the ev­i­dence, if any­thing, sug­gests the op­po­site. Your job may be sav­ing your life. — Bloomberg

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