The Health Benefits of Working for a Lifetime

Many Americans are working well past the age of retirement. Dr. Robert Butler, founding director of the National Institute on Aging and CEO of the International Longevity Center, talks about why people choose to keep working. Butler says work gives older people's lives meaning, control and an income.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

On Wednesdays, our business segment focuses on the workplace. Today, working long after others get their gold watches.

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STAMBERG: The news or really lack of news about the resignation of Chief Justice William Rehnquist got us thinking about people who choose to work and work and work for a lifetime. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says almost a million people who are 75 and over still work. That's twice as many as 20 years ago. Some older workers do it because they have to, but many do it because work is something they live for. That is part of Dr. Robert Butler's story. He is president of the International Longevity Center in New York City and he's 78 years old.

Nice to talk to you, Dr. Butler.

Dr. ROBERT BUTLER (President, International Longevity Center): Same here. Pleasure.

STAMBERG: It's been nine months now since Chief Justice Rehnquist announced that he has thyroid cancer, but he has kept working just as much as he has been able to do. Is there any health benefit to that as far as you know?

Dr. BUTLER: Well, individuals who continue to work have the advantage of social engagement, people that they see on the job. They have something to get up for in the morning. It gives them a real goal, a sense of meaning. If they have an influential job such as chief justice of the United States, they really also have a feeling they're doing something constructive and useful. It provides them with autonomy. It, of course, gives them income.

STAMBERG: But surely there comes a point when if you keep on working, it's just not such a good idea for your health and for other things.

Dr. BUTLER: Well, there are downsides, of course, that if you become quite miserable and physically unable, that may, indeed, prove limiting...

STAMBERG: Yes.

Dr. BUTLER: ...but the degree to which people can keep going, they often do.

STAMBERG: Yes.

Dr. BUTLER: Individuals who have autonomy, have self-employed positions usually hang in there.

STAMBERG: Self-employed positions.

Dr. BUTLER: Doctors, lawyers, people that can control their lives tend to stay in them.

STAMBERG: Oh, that's very interesting. So you're answering to yourself, not to 73 bosses and a bunch of supervisors.

Dr. BUTLER: Absolutely, but also you're not subject to age discrimination because you decide whether you're going to keep working.

STAMBERG: Yeah. Now I don't want to sound ageist but I will risk it for this ques--I'm the last one to do that, but I'll risk it for this question. What about the quality of the work that we do as we get older? Obviously, we--you know, if you're going to do heavy lifting, heavy physical labor, we can't do that as well as we get older. What about the mental work, mental agility?

Dr. BUTLER: Well, there's no question but what there is dementia, the most common form of which is the dreaded Alzheimer's disease, but most people remain intellectually alive and vital. And, in fact, we know that intellectual stimulation, social engagement and even physical activity helps maintain cognitive health.

STAMBERG: Well, physical activity, everybody says that, of course. Exercise forever if you can, but the mental business, I mean, the idea of senior moments, that is not just a joke.

Dr. BUTLER: No, there are junior moments, too, you know?

STAMBERG: Oh, yes, although I don't remember them.

Dr. BUTLER: Well, that's part of the problem. No. As a matter of fact, what I'm saying is those that have their health are very good workers.

STAMBERG: I understand that Japan has one of the highest percentages of older people in their work force. Something like 20 percent of people over the age of 65 keep on working there. So what can we learn from the Japanese?

Dr. BUTLER: Well, they have to do it because they have a very low birth rate and the pressure's on in Europe. In fact, the EU has articulated that all of the European Community nations have to have age discrimination laws in place by 2006. The pressure's on for people to work longer. The issue, of course, is health costs and financial pension arrangements which will be improved if people remain contributory to the work force. I mean, here we have a situation where continuing to work is beneficial both to the individual and to society.

STAMBERG: Thank you very much. Dr. Robert Butler is the chief executive of the International Longevity Center in New York.

Thank you, sir.

Dr. BUTLER: Thank you.

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