Americans are used to being warned by financial gurus about the perils of retiring too early. But increasingly, research shows that quitting work prematurely can be as bad for your health as for your wallet.

A massive study, "Should I Stay or Should I Go?," has been following more than 100,000 people in 21 countries to weigh the effects of retirement on their well-being. Already, the evidence suggests that retiring earlier than the mean age in a given culture can lead to poorer overall health, as well as lower happiness levels. The research is being conducted by the Columbia Aging Center and the Institute of Public Policy at Diego Portales University, in Chile.

Although the sheer size of the study could wind up lending it special weight, its projected findings are nothing new. A variety of recent studies have linked work with mental acuity; in industrialized nations, they have found a strong correlation between early retirement and diminished cognitive function.

A British study reported in 2009 that working beyond normal retirement age appeared to stave off dementia. Tara Bahrampour of the Washington Post reports that, in 2013, an Italian study found that the risk of mental decline increased the longer one was in retirement.

(Perhaps Congress was thinking of this when it began raising the full retirement age for Social Security. Never mind the state of the program's financial reserves; encouraging us to work longer is for our own good.)


Given the research findings, and the lamentable condition of too many Americans' finances, should most of us keep working indefinitely? Apparently that need not be the case. The researchers at the Columbia Center suggest that retiring in one's late 60s is probably optimal, though it can depend on what an individual's peers are doing. It can also depend on whether the work is sufficiently challenging.

Experts on aging point not incidentally, and with growing urgency, to the staggering cost of dementia care, which can deplete family finances. As more and more Americans retire, the demand will increase, creating a strong societal reason to keep people working longer.

For individuals, especially those who have not yet saved enough, a good case can be made for staying on the job and delaying taking Social Security benefits. (Full retirement age is now 66, but waiting until age 70 maximizes the available payment.) A case can also be made, however, for ceasing to tax the earnings of those who take benefits early (right now, that is most of those eligible) but who still wish to work. Because of the tax, too many Americans simply quit. If the research is correct, we cannot rely on crossword puzzles to keep these people sharp.

Of course, the decision to continue working is not always up to the worker. Too many Americans are laid off, or nudged into premature retirement through incentive programs. The loss is not just to them but to the labor pool, which faces a shortage of skilled workers.

Most Americans fantasize about a time in which they will be free to kick back. But, as the research increasingly shows, there are plenty of good reasons not to rush it. Government policies and private hiring decisions alike should better reflect this newfound wisdom.

– The Providence Journal (R.I.), Nov. 20