How Old Is Too Old to Work?

FRIDAY April 10, 2009 -- Debate about the ideal age to retire has been going on for years. But with the U.S. economy in a dramatic slump, the flip side of that question -- how old is too old to work? -- has become uppermost in many people's minds.

As workers young and old fret about dwindling retirement accounts in the wake of the mortgage crisis and stock market tumbles, they joke that they'll have no choice but to work until they're 90 or beyond.

But many also wonder: Will I be able to?

Research has offered some reassurances. Researchers have learned that there is no ideal retirement age and that older adults who keep their thinking skills sharp by learning new things off the job can stay more competitive in the job market, too.

"In today's economy, it becomes more of a necessity than a luxury to keep working," said Dr. Joseph Sirven, a professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. The short answer to the question, "How old is too old to work?" is, Sirven said, "when you are not able to do the job."

But there's much you can do to prevent that from happening, he and other experts have found. "What we find now from research and a neurological perspective is [that] the secret to good aging is, you have to keep busy," Sirven said. "Sometimes that means exercise, physical activity. But it means a lot of mental and cognitive activity" also, he said.

Today, Sirven said, older adults frequently retire from one career and transition into another -- something that's matched to their skills and experience and takes into account any age-related disadvantages.

His advice for people who plan to work well beyond the traditional retirement age of 65: "Focus on what work can you do that you can keep up with as you age."

Take stock of your attributes and drawbacks: "You may not be the quickest or most agile," Sirven said, "but you could be the wisest or the most experienced, which also counts."

That wisdom might be doubly appreciated by co-workers, even younger ones, in our shaky economy, he said. Older workers, after all, have been through several recessions. "That stability of wisdom, of living through it [before], can be the most important of all," he said.

Joy L. Taylor, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, stressed that keeping skills sharp can make a difference in on-the-job performance. She studied 118 noncommercial pilots, age 40 to 69, to determine how age affects cognitive performance in the real world.

She did the study as the Federal Aviation Administration was proposing that the mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots be raised from 60 to 65, which was later signed into law.

Though she did find that the older pilots, those 60 to 69 years of age, initially performed worse than the younger pilots, she also found that the older pilots showed less of a decrease in their overall flight summary scores. And over time, they improved more on their "traffic avoidance" performances than did the younger pilots.

The study was published in the journal Neurology, accompanied by an editorial co-authored by Sirven.

Now, Taylor and her team are studying whether extra training for pilots helps them overcome age-related changes in motor performance skills they need, such as flying in a holding pattern.

So, how to best ensure that you can work longer than average, if you have to or want to?

Try constantly to learn new skills, Sirven suggested. "Pick up a new language, learn a new instrument," he said. "Give yourself a push to try something new."

And Taylor had additional ideas. "Keep your work-related skills, exercise, and eat the best diet, a heart-healthy diet," she said. "Our emphasis is on physical health as well as cognitive health and stimulation -- both being equally important."

More information

To learn more about work-related issues for older Americans, visit AARP.

Posted: April 2009


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