I’m dying early, it seems. I didn’t realize it, but a recent Oregon State University study claims to show that people that retire early are “11% more likely” to die earlier than those that work past age 65. Perhaps reaching FIRE (financial independence and retiring early) is bad for my health?
The 18 year long study (1992-2010) had ~2,500 participants and showed that 12% of healthy people starting the study died during the study time frame. Among these, early retirees were “11% more likely” to die before people that worked past age 65.
Seems scientific, doesn’t it? The results are reported as a paradoxical cautionary tale against leaving the workplace. At least they controlled for whether or not people were healthy (after all, health issues force many people into early retirement). Not all studies on this topic do so.
Yet, a couple things bother me about this study:
First, I don’t like it when researchers report a percentage of a percentage. It makes small differences look bigger than they are. If 12% of healthy people died during the study – how big a difference does an “11% higher risk of mortality” really look like? Well it looks like this: 12.4% of early retirees died, versus 11.2% of people who worked past 65. That’s a 1.2 percentage point gap. It certainly seems pretty close to me. Stated another way, you would say 2 out of 20 early retirees died, as compared to 2 out of 20 people that worked until past age 65. No difference at all when you put it in these common terms, because the very slight difference represented in the study gets rounded off.
Second, I’ve found no information cited on what the margin of error for a study like this might be. They are using ~2,500 participants to project to hundreds of millions of Americans. At what level of confidence are they projecting statistical significance? Political polls typically have 3-4 percentage points of possible statistical error. It’s hard to imagine the difference reported here isn’t also within the margin of error.
Lastly, there are significant confounding variables that are not controlled for in the study results. Single people, for instance, tend to retire earlier while married people live longer. Self-employed people tend to work later, but live happier and longer. Men and women tend to retire at different ages (as do people with different ethnicity). People with higher levels of education tend to retire later than others. White collar workers retire later than blue collar workers and have jobs that are less physically demanding. Additionally, people that work longer would likely earn more money by working longer and wealth is highly correlated with living longer.
These variables taken separately or together would seem to have significant bearing on a statistical difference that already seems relatively small. Small enough that I will certainly take my chances and instead focus on the things that are more obviously shown to make a much bigger impact on longevity: eating well, being active, and having strong relationships with my wife, family, and friends.
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