Image: Thom Guthrie
Mary Weikert  /  Special to MSNBC
Pastor Thom Guthrie visits Sunday school at Live Oak Church of the Brethren in Live Oak, Calif. He says his new career in ministry has bolstered his health.
By contributor
updated 7/30/2009 7:29:01 AM ET 2009-07-30T11:29:01

The first time Thom Guthrie retired, after a long career as a teacher and school administrator, he was 60. The California man had undergone major heart surgery and thought he was ready to relax.

Before long, he started buying and restoring property. He retired a second time at 65. Again, he quickly grew bored. So, he returned to school, earned a master's degree in ministry, and embarked on an entirely new career. Guthrie, who will turn 70 on his next birthday, is now the interim pastor in Live Oak, Calif.

“It helps in so many ways to not be idle,” he says. “If I sat home, I'd drive my wife crazy, I'd go insane — and I'd weigh 300 pounds.”

Rather than retiring and relaxing into a life of leisure,increasing numbers of older Americans are remaining on the job or returning to the workforce. They're prodded in part by the harsh economy and their shrinking nest eggs, but holding down a job has benefits beyond pulling a paycheck.

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Scientists say that older adults who work, whether part time or full time, are healthier as a whole, particularly if they like their jobs.

“Continuing to work gives people a sense of meaning and purpose,” says psychology professor Harvey Sterns, director and senior fellow at the Institute for Life-Span Development and Gerontology at the University of Akron in Ohio.

And that can translate into lasting mental and physical vigor.

Sterns' family has an enduring work ethic: His father worked until age 85, his brother is still in full-time law practice at 75, and Sterns himself is going strong at 66.

“Working longer can contribute to one's health and well-being,'' he says.

But that may be the case only when you want to work — not if you're forced to do so against your wishes. Then, working may just be stressful and physically draining.

“It's how you frame it mentally,” Sterns say.

Stimulating to mind and body
Research shows that people who retire later may be able to postpone the development of mind-robbing Alzheimer's disease.

In fact, a British study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry in May showed that each extra year of work was associated with a six-week delay in the onset of dementia.

Another recent report in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that work, and other forms of intellectual stimulation such as engaging in multi-tasking activities and playing complex video games, help to preserve cognitive function and are “associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's disease in late life.”

“To the extent that work is stimulating cognitively, socially or physically, it's likely to be beneficial to one's health in general,” says one of the study's authors, Robert S. Wilson, a professor of neurological science and behavioral science at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Continuing to work can also help older people eat better, move better and feel better.

“Working in retirement can improve one's physical mobility, and it is tied to lower rates of depression,” says Amy Pienta, a sociologist at the University of Michigan. “Working can also help people maintain healthy patterns due to structured eating schedules. Retirees who work are also less likely to have chronic disease, such as diabetes.”

Still, more research is needed to show whether returning to work after an absence has the same effect on disease.

Image: Thom Guthrie
Mary Weikert  /  Special to MSNBC
Pastor Thom Guthrie speaks to the congregation at Sunday worship service at Live Oak Church of the Brethren in Live Oak, Calif.
Guthrie, the minister, believes that work has bolstered his overall health by helping him to remain active — that was his doctor's order a decade ago following heart surgery.

“When you work, you're forced to keep moving,” he says. “I'm not taking naps in the afternoon. I believe that if people retire and do nothing, they die quicker. Maybe they should shift down to third gear, but don't stop. I'm pushing 70 and I'm looking for 80 or 90.”

Over the last quarter century, AARP has seen a steady rise in the number of working seniors. In 1985, one in 10 seniors was in the workforce; today it's one in six. A recent AARP survey showed that nearly 70 percent of baby boomers intend to work into their so-called golden years.

“We are seeing a new paradigm for what retirement will look like in the future,'' says Deborah Russell, AARP's director of workforce issues. “People want to work for income and health insurance, but they also want to stay mentally and physically active.”

Conventional retirement ages were set at a time when 62 or 65 was functionally very different from what it is now, says Michael A. Smyer, provost of Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. A psychologist and gerontologist, he has studied aging for more than 30 years.

Moreover, the nature of work has changed, he says, with fewer jobs that are physically demanding and more jobs requiring social and cognitive skills.

‘Longevity bonus’
“People are living longer and are being healthy and will continue to work because they want to or have to,” he says. “It's what we call the longevity bonus. It has never existed on the scale that we are anticipating.”

Indeed, the nation may be entering an era in which work could be a pathway toward heightened well being, says Jacquelyn James, co-director of research at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.

“Having meaning and purpose is what it's all about,” she says. “The challenge seems to be convincing employers of the value of the older worker.”

One Massachusetts company needs no convincing.

Vita Needle Company Inc., which makes needles, tubing and fabricated parts for medical and industrial use, has had a workforce largely comprised of senior citizens for the last 20 years.

Of the company's 45 employees, 25 are over age 65 — the oldest is 96.

“They come to work in rain, snow, heat,” says Frederick Hartman II, whose family has owned and operated the business since its founding in 1932. “Maybe it's a generational thing. When those of us who are younger wake up with a headache, we try to suck it up knowing that people much older will be on the job.”

Since Joe Reddington, 79, unretired a dozen years ago to join the company, his health, weight, and general outlook have improved. He'd spent his career as an engineer and sales manager in the computer industry.

“My wife was getting unnerved with me,” he says. “I couldn't handle the nothingness of not working.”

Surrounded by a challenging work environment, his blood pressure dropped and he's shed 30 pounds.

“You feel like your total being is affected because you are doing something worthwhile,” he says. “I really think it's helped my health. I take no medicine now except vitamins. It may be a coincidence, but them is the facts.”

Elizabeth Fernandez is a writer based in San Francisco.

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