Large longitudinal studies in the United States have shown that around 25 percent of American retirees experience a significant drop in health and well-being during their transition to retirement. Researchers have been very interested in what might contribute to this drop. Retirement is a time of major transitions and often involves more changes than just leaving the workforce. One potential change is a reduced number of memberships in social groups following retirement, and these may be of particular concern in light of research on the importance of social activity for overall wellness. Losing social interaction in the workplace as well as reducing membership in non-work social groups could make the transition to retirement particularly detrimental to well-being. To examine this issue, researchers recently looked at the impact of social group memberships before and after retirement on quality of life and mortality.
This study examined recent retirees, and compared them to older adults with similar demographic characteristics who had either not yet retired or who had already made the transition to retirement. This comparison helped researchers determine whether any observed effects were related to the transition to retirement. Both groups included 424 individuals with an average age of 60. To measure the impact of social group membership, the researchers used a question about an individual’s membership in eight types of groups such as social clubs or church groups. They then looked at how responses on this question were associated with a question asking about quality of life and records of deaths over a period of six years.
Looking first at quality of life, the researchers found that for individuals transitioning to retirement, the number of social groups that an individual reported after retirement was a predictor of higher quality of life scores. Every group membership that participants lost after retirement was associated with a 10 percent lower quality of life score six years later. It was these changes that showed the significant association, not responses to the question on group membership prior to their retirement. Interestingly, for the participants not transitioning to retirement, changes in group membership did not show the same effect. For these individuals, it was only the number of group memberships at the start of the study that were associated with higher quality of life. For these individuals, each group membership at the start of the study was associated with a 9 percent higher quality of life eight years later.
Turning to mortality data, the researchers found that the number of group memberships following retirement was a significant predictor of death. This data showed that participants with two group memberships prior to retirement who maintained as many memberships following retirement showed a 2 percent risk of death in the following six years. Those that went from two memberships to one following retirement showed a 5 percent risk of death, and those who went from two to zero showed a 12 percent risk of death. Those individuals who engaged in additional memberships following retirement showed a less than 1 percent risk of mortality during the same period.
In contrast, in the comparison group, changes in group membership were not associated with a greater risk of death. Again, for this group, it was the number of group memberships at the start of the study that was predictive of risk of death. Those individuals in this group with zero group memberships at the start of the study showed a 10 percent chance of dying over the next eight years, while those with two memberships had only a 2 percent risk.
Since physical activity has been previously shown to influence risk of mortality, the researchers also examined its association with deaths. They found that changes in physical activity significantly predicted risk of mortality for both groups. For those transitioning to retirement, those who continued to exercise vigorously once a week following retirement had a 3 percent chance of dying in the next six years, compared to a 6 percent chance if they changed to exercising vigorously less than once a week following retirement and a 11 percent chance if they stopped vigorous exercise altogether. These results were similar, though slightly smaller, for the comparison group.
Many older adults are becoming aware of the importance of physical activity to maintain as much independent functioning as possible and to extend life. But they may be very surprised to find that the effect of changes to social group memberships is comparable to the risk associated with reductions in physical activity.
In their discussion of the findings, the researchers write that “the loss of a workplace group membership associated with retirement is less likely to compromise health and quality of life to the extent that retirees are able to maintain other group memberships and join new groups once retired.” The authors theorize that these observed patterns may reflect retirement being an identity change process, in which the maintenance or addition of group memberships allows one to preserve or forge new social identities that are not tied to the workplace.
For the aging services field, this research points to the importance of the period of transition following retirement for both quality of life and mortality risk. The authors suggest that in addition to financial planning for retirement, greater social planning for retirement may be needed. This could begin in human resources departments, and take place in community organizations such as senior centers or Villages. Since not all older adults will search out such resources following retirement, there is also a need for public health messages on this subject. Such planning or messages should “focus on helping retirees maintain their sense of purpose and belonging by assisting them to connect to groups and communities that are meaningful to who they are.”
Steffens NK, Cruwys T, Haslam C, et al. Social Group Memberships in Retirement Are Associated with Reduced Risk of Premature Death: Evidence from a Longitudinal Cohort Study. BMJ Open. (2016) DOI:10.1136/bmjopen-2015-010164