Penn State football coach Joe Paterno lost his job of 46 years in November and passed away of lung cancer this past weekend. In 2008, he reportedly told sportscaster Brent Musberger that he was afraid he’d die if he ever stepped away from the game. He mentioned legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, who suffered a fatal heart attack in 1983 a month after coaching his last game. Other famous figures who died recently, not long after retirement, include Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz and 60 Minutes host Andy Rooney. Are people at greater risk of death when they stop working?
If so, the link is indirect. Studies have repeatedly shown that people who retire early tend to die younger than those who continue working. But that’s partly because people who are ill or unhealthy are more likely to retire than those who are in perfect health. Schulz and Rooney didn’t die because they retired—they retired because they were close to death.
Still, there is some evidence to suggest that retirement can have an impact on mortality independent of preexisting conditions. A study of former Shell Oil workers published in 2005 contradicted the popular myth that early retirement leads to a longer, happier life. Looking at thousands of employees who retired from the company between 1973 and 2003, it found that those who retired at 55 died younger, on average, than those who retired at 65. The effect held even for those who retired at 55 but were still alive at 65, making it somewhat less likely that they retired early because of failing health. Likewise, a study of more than 16,000 Greeks published in 2007 found that retirees were 51 percent more likely to die during the follow-up period than employed people of the same age. It excluded those who had been previously diagnosed with serious illnesses. On the other hand, an even larger German study from 2009 controlled for the number of days workers had spent in the hospital in the two years prior to retirement, and found that among the healthier participants in the study, those who retired early actually lived longer.
Couldn’t the stress of a working life be deadly in its own way? Yes, but research suggests that too little stress might also be a killer. While some retirees live active, healthy lives, peppering their days with tennis matches and volunteer work, others languish in front of the television. The everyday routine of getting up, going to work, interacting with colleagues, and striving for professional goals can keep people more physically and mentally fit than a quiet yet dull retirement. (Continuing to make money also doesn’t hurt.)
One popular theory holds that people can lose the “will to live” at the end of their lives, but this is hard to test. Studies have found that losing a spouse or close family member can cause the bereaved to die shortly thereafter of “broken-heart syndrome,” a sort of stress-induced heart attack. But that’s rare, and appears to stem from sudden, acute trauma. Also, its primary victims are post-menopausal women.
In any case, none of the above would seem to apply to Paterno, since he died of complications from lung cancer treatment. While his firing may have been traumatic for him, the strongest links between stress and mortality involve cardiovascular conditions, not cancer. And Paterno’s diagnosis came around the same time he lost his job, making it likely that he developed the cancer before the scandal broke.
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Explainer thanks Shan P. Tsai of the University of Texas School of Public Health. Thanks also to reader Kevin Miller for asking the question.