Dr. Pinchas Cohen, dean of the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California, agreed that, from a health standpoint for people in these fields, a retirement age under 65 “makes no sense.”
“Even 65 is a 20th century number,” he said.
For people working in knowledge-based jobs, a retirement age in the 70s is reasonable from a cognitive perspective, too, said Lisa Renzi-Hammond, director of the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Georgia. “We’re able to maintain our cognitive faculties, usually, pretty well into our 70s,” she said. “If retirement age is set based on the capabilities or competence of employees, there’s absolutely no reason to have a retirement age in the 60s.”
Parts of the brain — most notably the prefrontal cortex, which is critical for executive functioning, attention and working memory — do start to lose volume as early as around age 45, but other areas are able to compensate, Dr. Renzi-Hammond said. And other aspects of cognition, such as crystallized intelligence (accumulated knowledge that can be applied to new situations) and social cognition (behaving appropriately in interpersonal interactions), continue to improve for decades.
Many of these cognitive processes are maintained and strengthened by staying in the work force. Consequently, some people decline mentally and physically when they stop working. One study even found that delayed retirement was associated with a reduced risk of death, regardless of health before retirement. Experts speculate that the losses of job-related physical activity and social interactions that come with leaving work are largely to blame for post-retirement declines.
National health and disability averages don’t tell the full story, though. While some people stay sharp and continue to work into their 80s, other jobs are more physically demanding and take a toll on people’s health.
“There are people who do manual labor where at age 65, they really cannot continue to do this very challenging work,” Dr. Cohen said. “Their need to retire needs to be respected.”
For these types of work, retirement can actually improve health outcomes, Dr. Renzi-Hammond said. “If you’re leaving a job that is physically bad for you, where you are getting terrible sleep and you’re constantly stressed out, then retirement is great for your health.”