Losing your job in the run up to retirement could hurt far more than your bank account; it could harm your long-term health, as well. That's according to the findings of a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled "The Impact of Late-Career Job Loss and Genotype On Body Mass Index".
The research used data from the Health and Retirement Study—a longitudinal study that interviews 20,000 participants over the age of 50 every two years on a host of issues, including changes in Body Mass Index (BMI), unemployment, physical and mental health, and more—and crossed it with genotype data for 2,150 full and part time workers ages 50-60. Controlling for various factors, researchers found that "genetically-at-risk workers who were not overweight prior to job loss were more likely to gain weight than comparable high-risk workers who were continuously employed..." Single men with below median incomes who were already in worse health were particularly vulnerable.
The researchers found that those who lost their jobs before they became eligible for Social Security were more likely to gain weight, indicating that idleness before a proper retirement can be bad for your waistline (and overall health). According to lead researchers Lauren L. Schmitz of the University of Michigan and Dalton Conley of Princeton University, these findings are "in line with multiple studies that have linked unemployment to poorer health behaviors in men."
The paper points specifically to the stress as a reason for the weight gain. "The stress of displacement from a business closure may be further compounded if individuals have a harder time finding reemployment and/or are not yet eligible for retirement benefits," it reads. And those without spouses or much in the way of discretionary funds are more likely to feel the stress.
Of course, unemployment in older age has several other long-term consequences: Less in retirement savings (which are already hard enough to collect), lower household wealth, and higher rates of stress and anxiety, per the paper. Not only does it take older workers longer to find a new job if they are fired or laid off, but often their wages will take a major hit. According to a 2012 survey conducted by AARP, 77% of Americans between 45 and 54 said employees face age discrimination. As the paper details, "half of unemployed adults aged 50 to 61 experienced more than nine months of job search during the Great Recession, compared to six months for workers aged 25 to 34."
The paper makes sure to note that the findings are not definitive and that there are other issues that need to be taken into account, such as the general decline of health in older age.