Working in retirement: If you keep doing useful work, you'll live longer and be healthier.

All you need to know about retirement.
March 10 2011 4:19 PM

Don't Stop Working!

What's the secret to living longer and being healthier? Keep doing useful work.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

William E. Bradford was such a bright, precocious little boy that by the time he was 7 years old he had been promoted to fifth grade. He went on to earn a degree from UCLA , join the U.S. Agency for International Development as a Latin America expert, and do graduate work at Johns Hopkins. He retired from the government in his 50s, continued as a consultant through his 60s, and devoted himself passionately to volunteering after that. Seven days a week, for decades, he recorded books for the blind and dyslexic. He sang baritone with several choral groups. His second marriage lasted 63 years, and he had seven children, 12 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. He died last month at age 96.

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

Bradford was also one of a dwindling band of research subjects chosen in childhood for a study originally called "Genetic Studies of Genius," begun in 1921 by Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman. These gifted students selected for their high I.Q. (minimum 135) have been analyzed by researchers ever since. Only about two dozen of the participants, who came to call themselves "Termites," are still alive out of a group of more than 1,500 boys and girls. The Terman study is one of the longest-lasting longitudinal research projects ever undertaken, and now that most of those bright children are gone, the entirety of their lives has been examined for clues to health and well-being into old age.

The Longevity Project,by psychology professors Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, presents the end-of-life findings of the Terman study, which the researchers say offer important, sometimes startling conclusions about the factors that sustain a long, rewarding life. Except for a handful of participants who publicly identified themselves—movie director and member of the Hollywood 10 Edward Dmytryk, Life magazine journalist and World War II prisoner-of-war Shelley Smith Mydans—the names of the Termites have been kept confidential. The obituary of William Bradford in the Washington Post, with its mention of the Terman study, just happened to catch my eye. The few paragraphs summing up Bradford's life are a précis of the lessons of The Longevity Project.

Bradford had a satisfying if not brilliant career. (Famously, Nobel Prize-winning scientists William Shockley and Luis Alvarez were both rejected from the study as children for not being quite smart enough. No one who made the cut won a Nobel.) Bradford had a long marriage. His retirement wasn't about relaxation, but the beginning of a second career. His avocation kept him engaged in an active social network. He was devoted to helping others.

Friedman says The Longevity Project is not a guide to living far beyond the actuarial tables. "After 70 it becomes very hard to predict. Genetic things happen," he said in an interview. "It's harder to get people into their 80s and 90s." While Friedman acknowledges genes certainly play a role in health throughout people's lives, he says the effect is much less than commonly assumed. His Terman research identifies the patterns and pathways that lead intelligent people to either thrive personally and professionally, or to lose their sense of place in the world—a loss, the researchers found, that often was deadly. The lessons from the Terman participants' lives are more useful, the book asserts, than ever-shifting medical advice about how many blueberries and walnuts to eat, how many "preventive" medical procedures to undergo.

One of the most striking findings of The Longevity Project is that conscientiousness is a predictor of long life. People who blow their deadlines and forget their appointments tend to find themselves making an early appointment with the grim reaper. Sorting through eight decades of data shows that the reliable, more-mature-than-their years little boys and girls identified in the 1920s became the dependable adults who were most likely to have made it into a new century. "[T]he best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness—the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person …—somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree."

The benefits of a conscientious personality are obvious: These people are less likely to smoke and drink, or drive dangerously. Throughout life, conscientious people are less impulsive, and less depressed. The researchers found that the prudent died less from all causes, not just those related to dangerous habits. It appears the conscientious have higher levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin (a brain chemical boosted by antidepressants), which is linked to, the authors write, "many health-relevant processes throughout the body, including how much you eat and how well you sleep."

Among the most counterintuitive of the findings is that cheerfulness can kill. The authors write: "[C]heerful and optimistic children were less likely to live to an old age than their more staid and sober counterparts!" They found that cheerfulness was as big a risk factor for premature death as elevated blood pressure and high cholesterol. There seemed to be several reasons. The highly social went to more parties where they smoked and drank, craving the buzz. They died from accidents. But Friedman and Martin say their research showed something deeper. Despite the belief that optimists enjoy better health than pessimists, this research found a dark underside to optimism. When everything is going great, the optimist soars. But when facing life's difficulties, the optimist can feel defeated by the magnitude of the struggle that's required.

A long, satisfying marriage is good for both partners' health and longevity. But the researchers found that it is not the institution of marriage itself that conveys some kind of life-extending elixir. The participants who made long, happy marriages tended to be the people who were more stable as children and young people. The participants who ended unhappy marriages were less happy even before they chose a spouse. (And in a research aside that just begs for more follow-up, female participants and wives of Terman men who reported the highest frequency of orgasm during intercourse tended to live the longest.)

In answer to critics who would say these personality traits seem as fixed as genes (and perhaps are determined by genes), Friedman and Martin write about Termites who over the years transformed themselves from flibbertigibbets to more grounded people and reaped the benefits.

Retirement is usually seen as the severing of oneself from the work of a lifetime. Friedman, who is 60, dislikes this notion, and from his research he's come to believe such an attitude is bad both for society and individuals. Of course, for those in miserable work situations, a departure can mean liberation. But most of the Terman males (given the attitudes of the times, far fewer of the women Termites worked) had solid, sometimes even exceptional careers. Interviews done with successful Termites in their 70s, several of them lawyers, showed a striking number continued to work part time.

For those who contemplate retirement as decades filled with leisure and relaxation, The Longevity Project serves as a warning. As Friedman says, "fun can be overrated" and stress can be unfairly maligned. Many study participants who lived vigorously into old age had highly stressful jobs. Physicist Norris Bradbury, who died at age 88, succeeded J. Robert Oppenheimer as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, overseeing the transition of the U.S. atomic weapons research lab from World War II into the Cold War.

Friedman and Martin say it's the kind of stress that matters. The bright boys selected for the study who ended up having low-status jobs—streetcar conductor, baker, porter—and whose careers did not match their early promise were far more likely to die before age 60 than their higher status counterparts. Success, even in challenging jobs with demanding hours and responsibility, is a tonic. (Ever notice that orchestra conductors and dictators tend to go on forever?)

Provocative as the book's findings are, it would have been helpful if the authors had assumed their readers were almost as bright as the Termites, and provided the statistical evidence for their claims. While they cite other studies that buttress their findings, it would have strengthened the book to be able to see what percentages of Termites back up the researchers conclusions.

***

The only real lesson in another book about the years at the end of life, Never Say Die by Susan Jacoby, is that you'd better hope there aren't too many of them. Jacoby offers a dystopian vision of what awaits those who make it to a vigorous three-score and 10, and then just keep going. Her book is a rambling jeremiad, warning that once into deep old age, no matter that the old person did everything right to get there, what awaits is decline, dependency, and dementia.

"In real old age, as opposed to fantasyland, most people who live beyond their mid-eighties can expect a period of extended frailty, illness, and disability before they die," she writes. She cautions that neither satisfying work, healthful habits, enduring love, nor a good attitude can protect from brittle bones, a mind clogged with damaged neurons, or a bank account inadequate to one's needs.

Reading Jacoby's denture-rattling slap of a book back to back with Friedman and Martin's did raise the issue of whether longevity is an ultimate good. Friedman and Martin write, "Although our studies look at health, aging, happiness, and other signs of well-being, we always ask who lives longest. Why? … [L]ength of life is the single best measure of health."

But as we look around the world at rapidly aging societies, such as Japan, Jacoby's warning reverberates. Japan was once a vital economic giant that was going to overtake the West. Now, nothing seems to sum up its stagnancy so much as the portraits of its thwarted young people and its ever-expanding legion of retirees, who require an ever-growing portion of the country's dwindling economic resources. Then there are the articles about how Japanese toy manufacturers, alarmed about the declining number of children and burgeoning population of elderly, market talking dolls to old women who may never have grandchildren of their own.

What Never Say Die and The Longevity Project agree on is the salutary effect of work. Jacoby writes, "Being forced to work longer, or to think about developing new skills to augment an inadequate retirement income, might turn out to be an invigorating kick in the pants for boomers rather than a life sentence at hard labor." Friedman and Martin write that an analysis of the activities and accomplishments of study participants during the 1980s, when most were in their 70s, and following what happened over the next two decades was dramatic. "[T]he continually productive men and women lived much longer than their more laid-back comrades. … It was not the happiest or the most relaxed older participants who lived the longest. It was those who were most engaged in pursuing their goals."

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