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Wall Street Journal / Biz - Money

Why So Many Men Die at 62

A new study shows a sharp increase in mortality at age 62, and the researchers believe retiring may have something to do with it.

By

Demetria Gallegos

If you’re approaching age 62, thoughts about retirement and collecting Social Security may be on your mind. Here’s something else to think about as well.

A significant increase in mortality starts at 62, according to a new study. The escalation is much more dramatic for men than for women. And the fatal catalyst, the study’s authors believe, might be the availability of Social Security.

Maria D. Fitzpatrick, an associate professor of economics at Cornell University, and her co-author, Timothy J. Moore, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Melbourne, reviewed mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics’ Multiple Cause of Death files for 1979 to 2012. Their working paper was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in December and in the peer-reviewed Journal of Public Economics last month.

The Wall Street Journal spoke with Dr. Fitzpatrick about the research. Edited excerpts follow.

WSJ: Why did you study this?

DR. FITZPATRICK: There is a lot of work about the financial health of Americans as they retire. It is a big change in people’s lives. We were hypothesizing that it could have effects not just on their financial health but on their physical and psychological health.

WSJ: What’s going on at age 62?

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DR. FITZPATRICK: A lot happens in our early 60s. Some change jobs, scale back working hours or retire. Our health-care coverage may shift. We may have fewer financial resources, or we may begin collecting Social Security. About one-third of Americans immediately claim Social Security at 62. Ten percent of men retire in the month they turn 62.

WSJ: What do the numbers show?

DR. FITZPATRICK: There’s a sizable, 2% increase in male mortality at age 62 in the U.S. Over the 34 years we studied, there were an additional 400 to 800 deaths per year beyond what we expected, or an additional 13,000 to 27,000 excess male deaths within 12 months of turning 62. That 2% is 2 of every 100 men in the whole male population who turn 62. We really think these deaths are concentrated among the 10% of men who retire at 62, so instead of 2 in 100, it’d be 2 in 10. So, the increase in the probability of death for men who retire could be as high as 20%. I actually think that’s a pretty big deal.

WSJ: What is really happening?

DR. FITZPATRICK: Retirement could have positive long-run benefits for your health because you’re taking better care of yourself. Or it could be that, in the long run, retirement has a negative effect. You can think of how a retiree slowly withdraws from the world because he no longer has any reason to engage.

What we find in the short-run are negative consequences. For example, many deaths come from traffic accidents. If you don’t go to work, you have more hours of the day to be driving around. Medical literature suggests when older men are more sedentary, they’re more likely to be at risk for infection. When they lose their jobs, they increase their smoking rate, linked to the types of deaths we see such as COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] or respiratory illness.

People who retire at 62 are more likely to have worked as physical laborers. They could be retiring because they’re in poor health. More broadly, there could be negative consequences because this is a difficult time for people. There’s a lot of uncertainty. We know people get sick during periods of stress.

WSJ: So what is the bottom line?

DR. FITZPATRICK: The takeaway is retirement may be bad for the health of men, particularly for men who retire at the relatively early age of 62. That is the leading explanation.

WSJ: What can be done about it?

DR. FITZPATRICK: We aren’t necessarily saying people shouldn’t retire. But if you’re thinking about retirement, particularly if you’re 62 and if your health is poor to start with, think about preventive health measures. Stay healthy, see a physician, don’t just sit on the couch, but don’t overdo it either. Be careful about driving. Just be careful. It is a tricky time.

We could also design policies that are aimed at working with people thinking about retirement at age 62 and encouraging them to be healthy.

WSJ: Should early Social Security eligibility be pushed later?

DR. FITZPATRICK: I do think that coupled with some of the fiscal problems in the Social Security system it would be useful to think about whether it is worthwhile to encourage people to work beyond 62. The caveat is that many people retire at 62 because their health is poor. If you pushed the early retirement age higher, some would work longer and live longer. But others would suffer.

Ms. Gallegos is a news editor for The Wall Street Journal in New York. Email: demetria.gallegos@wsj.com.

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