What’s The Link Between Retirement, Health, and Happiness?

Why It Matters:
  • There’s quite a bit of conflicting data on how, exactly, retirement might affect your health. 
  • At least one expert suggests that retirees’ health improves, and things get better in the years that follow.
  • Having a strong sense of purpose might help protect people from death from heart, circulatory, and blood conditions, one study suggests. 

American Heart Association tkc.profilePicture Written by: American Heart Association | Transamerica
Oct. 23, 2019

5 Min readClock Icon

The first question many people have about retirement is, “How will my finances be impacted?” An equally important question might be, “Will retiring affect my health?”

The answer: It depends.

Your financial retirement needs will depend on the lifestyle you seek to maintain and will, according to one recent analysis by GOBankingRates.com, vary greatly depending on where you live.

For example, if you’re in Mississippi, a comfortable retirement will run you about $53,000 a year. But if you live in Hawaii, (enjoy those beach views) a comfortable retirement is estimated to cost close to $118,000 annually.1

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

One recent study of Dutch civil servants found that men responding to an early retirement offer were 2.6% less likely to die over the next five years than those who did not retire early.2 3

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.4 (Financial side note on the benefits of delaying retirement: Every extra year of work has been found to raise future annual retirement income by 9% on average.)5

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 that retirement had “no significant effect” on heart 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 heart disease, and only a few suggested that retirement reduced risk factors for it.6

What makes the connection between retirement and health so difficult to pinpoint? Devon Gorry, an assistant professor of economics at Clemson University, claims many people retire because of health issues. And it’s hard to separate those people out of the general retirement population pool these types of studies use.

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

Gorry co-authored an effort that focused on more than 10,000 people taking part in the national Health and Retirement Study. It concluded that people tend to be happier at retirement. They say their health improves and things actually get better in the years that follow.7

According to Gorry, “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.”

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 added.

“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,’” she said. “And surely — I don't doubt that. I think there are individual differences.”

Her study didn’t investigate 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.8

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

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 that 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.9

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 told NPR, "Where your life fulfillment comes from can be very individual."10

Things to Consider:

  • Many studies clash on what effect retirement might have on your health.
  • At least one expert suggests that, on average, people feel better after retiring. 
  • Having a strong sense of purpose could be key to a longer, more fulfilling life. 
 
1 “This Is What a Comfortable Retirement Will Cost You in Every State,” gobankingrates.com, Sept. 19, 2019.
2 “The Causal Effect of Retirement on Mortality,” Health Economics, Dec. 26, 2017
3 “The Connection Between Retiring Early and Living Longer,” The New York Times, Jan. 29, 2018
4 “Why So Many Men Die at 62,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 11, 2018
5 “The Case Against Early Retirement,” The Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2019
6 “The Impact of Retirement on Cardiovascular Disease and its Risk Factors,” The Gerontologist, May 15, 2019
7 “Does Retirement Improve Health and Life Satisfaction?” Health Economics, Aug. 23, 2018
8 “Does Retirement Improve Health and Life Satisfaction?” Health Economics, Aug. 23, 2018
9 “Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years,” JAMA Network Open, May 3, 2019
10 “What's Your Purpose? Finding a Sense of Meaning in Life is Linked to Health,” NPR, May 25, 2019


This article was prepared by the American Heart Association (AHA). Transamerica is not affiliated with the AHA and does not control, guarantee, or endorse the information. This information does not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always talk to your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911, or call for emergency medical help immediately.

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