Thinking Of Retiring? Consider Your Health

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Manuel "Manny" Aguirre, 80, has been mixing cocktails at Musso and Frank Grill in Los Angeles for more than two decades. He works part time and could retire — but he doesn't want to.

The Musso and Frank Grill is a cherished time warp in Los Angeles. Once inside, you're in old Hollywood: The place is all dim lighting and curved booths, with a soundtrack featuring every song you ever heard in a black-and-white movie. It's a steak-and-martini kind of place.

And the guy who makes those famous martinis is Manuel "Manny" Aguirre. He's been mixing cocktails for 55 years, more than two decades of that behind the long bar here. He just turned 80 and could retire if he wanted to.

"My kids and my grandchildren, they say to me, 'Grandpa, it's time.' But they don't realize you miss part of your life — your customers and your friends," he says.

One of those friends is 82-year-old waiter Alonzo "Panama" Castillo, who has worked at the restaurant for 40 years. Time just goes by, he says. "I like it here, so I keep working."

Like Aguirre, Castillo works part time and could retire if he wanted to. "But I want to keep in shape," Castillo says. "If I stay home, I will start watching TV. So the best thing for everyone is to work at least part time."

A majority of older workers in the United States have told pollsters they expect to do just that. There are plenty of financial reasons for staying on the job, such as inadequate savings and volatile 401(k) plans. But some research suggests a reason to keep working that jibes with Aguirre's and Castillo's experience: It may help keep you mentally and physically fit.

How Retirement Makes You Feel

One of the largest pools of data for researchers hoping to puzzle out the health effects of retirement comes from the University of Michigan's health and retirement study, which tracked thousands of older Americans for more than two decades. Economist Dhaval Dave, a research fellow with the National Bureau of Economic Research, says his look at the data showed that people who kept working were healthier than those who had retired.

"Once they retire completely ... there are increases in depression and mental illness," says Dave. "There are increases in certain health conditions like arthritis, hypertension. For the average American, we found negative effects on health."

Retirement also has a negative effect on cognition, according to Susann Rohwedder, the associate director for the study of aging at the Rand Corp.

She and her team found "a sizable cognitive decline in response to retirement," Rohwedder says — a 5.5 point decline on a 20-point scale. "So it is a really large effect."

But not all scientists read the accumulating evidence the same way. When Michael Insler, an economics professor at the Naval Academy, looked at the data, he found that retirement was good for your health. He examined nine health conditions, including cancer and heart and lung problems. And he found that the decision to retire reduced those conditions by up to a third.

What Does Retirement Look Like?

It's not that surprising that researchers disagree, says Dr. Edward Schneider, a professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California and the former deputy director of the National Institute on Aging. There are as many versions of retirement, Schneider says, as there are people who've retired.

"There are so many different factors that come into play," he says. "Are you retiring 'cause you want to? Are you retiring involuntarily? Are you working or volunteering after retirement? These are all critical factors in terms of your mental health, and I think they also affect your physical health."

The reason researchers disagree, he says, is that it's basically impossible to construct the best kind of scientific experiment on this subject.

"Ideally what we would do is randomly assign people who are working to two groups: one group that would continue working and the other group that would retire," Schneider says. "We'd follow them over a period of years and then look at their mental and physical health."

Of course, people aren't going to give up control of their lives in the interest of science. So meanwhile, what we have, in addition to large, retrospective surveys, is the small, unscientific sample group of Aguirre and Castillo, who can look around the restaurant and point out where the stars — including Mickey Rooney, John Wayne and Raymond Burr — enjoyed a meal. And not all the names are from the old Hollywood. Aguirre's scrapbook boasts snapshots of him posing with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Johnny Depp and Drew Barrymore.

The stars come, the stars go — but Manny Aguirre and Panama Castillo happily remain.

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