Does Retirement Lead to Premature Death?

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One
of the fundamental factors affecting the survival of someone who
is facing life-threatening adversity is the will to live. When you
hear of someone who survives being lost in the woods for days, facing
a dearth of food and water and exposed to extreme elements, it is
usually the refusal to die that allows one to stay survive the ordeal.

Conversely,
everyone knows or has heard of elderly couples who pass away within
months of each other. The loss of a beloved spouse makes the prospect
of a life alone unappealing as the will to live withers away.

A
friend of mine died recently. In the interest of the privacy of
his family, I shall call him "Ronald."

Ronald
was, by all accounts, a brilliant scientist, a loving husband, a
proud father and a gregarious, cheerful man. Everyone who knew him
was very fond of him.

Though
he had experienced some health problems in recent years, he did
not die of natural causes. Instead, he died of his own hand. Needless
to say, his tragic and shocking demise was puzzling to his family
and friends.

His
wife, several of his family members, friends and erstwhile co-workers
gathered at his home for a somber memorial service. Former colleagues
(he worked at a prominent National Laboratory) testified to his
brilliant problem-solving abilities. Noted one past associate, "I
would often go to Ronald and tell him about a sticky issue we were
trying to solve. I would tell him what others in the group had come
up with. Invariably, he would say u2018OK, but why don't you try it
this way?' And almost without exception, he would be right."

In
addition to his work at the Lab, Ronald and his wife ran a successful
retail business. He was also adept at assembling stained glass windows
in his home.

While
everyone gathered and talked quietly, no one voiced the "big
question:" why would this successful, seemingly contented man
take his own life? His brother, without any prompting from anyone,
offered a possible answer: "He shouldn't have retired. He didn't
have enough to do."

"Oh,
but he had all these projects around the house," offered one
friend.

"Yes,"
agreed the brother, the spitting image of Ronald, "but nothing
with any pressure. He didn't have any truly important decisions
to make."

Indeed,
Ronald had retired from the Lab a couple years ago, and had recently
sold his business. Despite his latest health troubles, he was by
no means on his deathbed.

In
a certain perverse way, albeit indirectly, the same government for
whom Ronald toiled for many years may have contributed to his premature
departure from this earth. Through Social Security and Medicare,
the federal government has created a culture of dependence among
the elderly. As life expectancy grows and the average retirement
age drops, many older Americans are looking at the prospect of two
decades or more of state-sponsored leisure, courtesy of the taxpayer.

Social
Security was conceived as a part of FDR's disastrous New Deal at
a time when the average life expectancy was 58 years for men and
61 years for women. The life expectancy now is 74 years for men
and 80 years for women. Medicare, enacted in 1965 under LBJ's watch,
has been equally devastating. Not only have the out-of-pocket health
care costs of Medicare recipients doubled (in real dollars, accounting
for inflation), the very existence of the program leads to poorer
health for senior citizens because anything that is subsidized is
inevitably made worse. The most pernicious effect of these programs,
however, may be premature death.

Do
those that continue to work beyond the government-induced retirement
age live longer than those who opt for leisure in the twilight years?
Unable to find any empirical studies on the topic, I must resort
to anecdotal evidence. Exhibit A is my stepfather, a bankruptcy
lawyer in Chicago. He recently celebrated his 70th birthday.
He is without doubt the most intelligent, erudite and vital 70-year
old that I know. He makes time for travel, symphony recitals, plays,
art openings, having dinner with friends and doing volunteer work
for the local park district. While he enjoys these activities, and
despite some health problems, he continues to work five or six days
a week. He still has important decisions to make.

Another
example that comes to mind is octogenarian Mike Wallace, the long-time
60 Minutes correspondent. He has been with the venerable
newsmagazine show since 1968 and shows no signs of slowing down.
Had Mr. Wallace retired five, ten or even 20 years ago, he very
well may have died by now.

Contrast
these gentlemen with my friend Ronald. If he had continued working,
would he have taken his own life? Might he have considered the importance
of his work reason enough to go on? Would he have retained the will
to live that is crucial to survival?

In
an instructive
column
, William Diehl, who worked for pay until the age of 79
and was employed on a non-compensated basis thereafter, says: The
solution is within the grasp of everyone who has decided to be productive.

It
often means a change in occupation. It may mean giving up benefits
and accepting a lower wage, or no wage at all. But a reason for
living, and a retention of identity, are surely sufficient remuneration.

If
you are nearing retirement age, or are planning a retirement that
is many years hence, consider taking Mr. Diehl's advice: never retire.
And if you've paid into FDR's Social (In)Security over the years
and feel entitled to benefits when you reach the requisite age,
by all means cash those checks. But continue to work. It could add
years to your life.

September
4, 2001

Rick
Gee (send him mail) is
a freelance writer residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also authors
a monthly column “On Liberty” for The Valley News.

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