Working Longer in Worse Health

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Graph showing people's limitations in activity according to retirement age

An idyllic retirement in warm Florida is becoming increasingly unrealistic for many Americans. Nearly 19% of Americans over the age of 65 are working at least part-time in 2017. This is a larger proportion than at any point since American retirees won better health care and Social Security benefits in the late 1960s.

Americans are working longer for greater financial security, presumably so that their retirements are more comfortable. However, recent research published in Health Affairs by Dr. HwaJung Choi and Dr. Robert Schoeni indicates that Americans who work longer to reach Social Security retirement age have worse health.

Dr. Choi and Dr. Schoeni use activities of daily living (ADLs) as an indicator of health. ADL limitation would be classified as having difficulties performing at least one of the following tasks: “walking across a room, dressing, bathing, eating, and transferring in and out of bed.”

The normal retirement age, for the purposes of this study, is the age at which individuals can claim Social Security. New legislation in 1983 moved the retirement age back gradually for the subsequent age groups, or cohorts, in order to account for longer life expectancies and preserve the solvency of the Social Security program. For example, the normal retirement age for those born in 1937 or earlier is 65 years. The normal retirement age for the cohort born between 1943 and 1954 is 66 years – and so on. ADL limitations were examined for the different cohorts

Even when controlling for education, all cohorts with higher normal retirement ages had higher rates of ADL limitation. Additionally, they found that cohorts with higher normal retirement age had higher rates of poor cognition in comparison to the cohort with the lowest normal retirement age.

Americans are working longer and in worse health even before they reach their respective retirement age. This study supports other research that suggests the health of Americans in their 50s and 60s has worsened over the past two decades. The consequence is “an increase in the share of workers in their fifties and sixties who are in poor health, which will create significant challenges for them and their employers.”

Feature image: Health Affairs, 2017, Vol.36 (10), p.1815-1819

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