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Does Retirement Lead to Premature Death?

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