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For a Healthier Retirement, Work a Little

(HealthDay News) -- The secret to a healthier retirement may be surprising: work.

Retirees who continue to work in some capacity, even part-time, are less likely to experience physical decline and disease, new U.S. research suggests.

Using data from the national Health and Retirement Study, researchers analyzed six years of information on the health, finances and employment status of over 12,000 men and women between the ages of 51 and 61 in 1992.

Compared to those who quit working altogether, those who described themselves as officially retired but who continued to work part-time or in temp jobs were less likely to be diagnosed with eight diseases: high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, lung disease, heart disease, stroke, psychiatric problems and arthritis.

Those who worked at least part-time also were less likely to show signs of functional decline, or inability to perform the activities of daily living, including walking across a room, getting in and out of bed, dressing, eating and bathing.

The findings held true even after controlling for age, sex, financial status, education level and physical and mental health before retirement, according to the study in the October issue of the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

"There are tons of reasons why working is good for you," said study co-author Mo Wang, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Maryland. "When you work, you have a daily structure. You may do more physical activity. Working provides financial resources, social context, opportunities to interact and to learn new skills. Working can also be good for self-esteem and nurturing a sense of identity."

But having to learn too much too quickly might not be so good for your mental state. Older workers whose "bridge employment" was in their chosen field had better mental health status than those whose post-retirement work was outside their prior field.

The study found that retirees who were struggling financially were more likely to work in a different field after retirement.

"When you're working in a similar field, you don't need to adjust to it. You're familiar with the rules and the social network," Wang said. "When you're working in a field you have not worked in before, you have to adjust to a new identify, a new social environment and a new work context. You may face challenges you never faced before."

All signs point to the trend of older workers staying on the job continuing. According to a 2008 survey from the AARP, 70 percent of 1,500 workers ages 45 to 74 said they planned to continue working into what they considered their retirement years.

Finances are a primary motivator, said Colin Milner, chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging in Vancouver, British Columbia. Baby Boomers -- the generation born in the post-World War II years -- have taken some financial hits recently, from the rising cost of health care to the housing bust to job losses.

But many also stay on the job because they want to, Milner added. Working provides a sense of purpose, which research has shown is key to maintaining mental and physical health in older age.

The study isn't the first to show that structured activity improves the lives of retired people. In May, research presented at a meeting of the American Geriatrics Society found that retirees over 65 who worked as volunteers had half the death risk of those who did not.

"What the [new] study does is reinforce a few things we already know," Milner said. "If you are involved in society and have purpose in life, whether that's through a job or as a volunteer, your health and your mental outlook is much better than if you're not."

SOURCES: Mo Wang, Ph.D., associate professor, applied psychology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD; Colin Milner, CEO, International Council on Active Aging, Vancouver, British Columbia; Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, October 2009