Teddy Roosevelt once said "the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." Recent research suggests he may have been more right than he knew: Life's "best prize" might actually extend life itself.
Our common perception is that retirement is a time when we can relax and take better care of ourselves after stressful careers. But what if work itself is beneficial to our health, as several recent studies suggest?
One of them, by Jennifer Montez of Harvard University and Anna Zajacova of the University of Wyoming, examined why the gap in life expectancy between highly educated and less-educated Americans has been growing so rapidly. (I have explored this topic in several previous columns, and have also agreed to be co-chairman of a National Academy of Sciences panel that will delve into it in more detail.)
Examining the growing educational gradient in life expectancy from 1997 to 2006, Montez and Zajacova focused on white women ages 45 to 84. In addition to differential trends in smoking by education, they concluded that among these women "employment was, in and of itself, an important contributor." The life expectancy of less-educated women was being shortened by their lower employment rates compared with those of highly educated women.
The researchers tried to test whether the problem was that less-educated people had worse health, and therefore couldn't work. But they found that "the contribution of employment to diverging mortality across education levels is at least partly due to the health benefits derived from employment."