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Want good health in your golden years? Keep working

People who work after retiring enjoy better physical and mental health, particularly when they continue to work in their original fields, a new national study finds.

People who continue to work to some degree after retiring enjoy better physical and mental health, though potential benefits (and hazards) of specific career types were not measured.

If you're hoping to retire as soon as possible with the intention of never working again, you might want to reconsider. Retirees who transition from full-time work to full retirement in one fell swoop actually contract more diseases and function worse doing day-to-day tasks than those who continue to work even just temporarily or part-time, according to a national study published in the October issue of the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

"Choosing a suitable type of bridge employment will help retirees transition better into full retirement and in good physical and mental health," says co-author Kenneth Shultz, professor of psychology at California State University at San Bernardino. He suggests that employers worried about labor shortages due to so many baby boomers retiring might consider bridge employment options for their workers.

The researchers, whose study was sponsored by the National Institute of Aging, analyzed data from 12,189 participants in the national Health and Retirement Study who were 51 to 61 years old at the beginning of the study. Participants were interviewed every two years between 1992 and 1998 about health, finances, employment history, and other aspects of their lives, including whether they were still working or fully retired.

Even when controlling for baseline physical and mental health issues, retirees who chose to work to some degree experienced fewer functional limitations and diseases (i.e. heart disease, diabetes, psychiatric disorders, etc.) than those who retired fully. (Read full PDF here.)

Shultz tells me they haven't pinpointed actual percentage decreases, which would be difficult given the high number of variables, from age, gender, and location to personal wealth, hours worked, and the types of transitions. He did say that their research found that even when adjusting for previous health conditions and hours worked, those who continued to work in their same careers enjoyed the best overall health:

We controlled for health effects prior, so it wasn't previous health predicting it--it was actually engaging in bridge employment that seemed to be the bigger predictor. And if you were doing bridge employment in a different field, that adds more of an adaptation piece, so the beneficial effects of bridge employment started to decrease. It's still better than fully retiring, but not as beneficial as continuing in the same career field.

In addition to the stress that can result from lifestyle changes when a retiree switches careers, those who opt to switch careers had more financial problems to begin with, according to the paper's co-author, Mo Wang at the University of Maryland. Wang says that could have its own effect on anything from stress and diet to access to health care.

When I asked Shultz whether specific careers tended to develop healthier retirees, he said they weren't privy to career types so as to protect the anonymity of the study's participants. "That would be an interesting follow-up study--to dig deeper into specific occupations," he said.