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Pope's shocker underscores strain of late-life work

Pope Benedict XVI made the tough, critical decision to relinquish his duties, but increasingly more people are working into their 70s, 80s and beyond.

As the pope can attest, even if you’re toiling in the cushiest of corner offices, 85 is not the new LX.

Pope Benedict XVI, who’s logged more than five years as pontiff, announced Monday he will relinquish the papacy at the end of the month. Benedict gave his waning strength as a reason to end his job-for-life, and said his aging body and mind couldn't keep pace with the demands of the globe-trotting role. 

Despite the pontiff's decision, however, a rising number of people are staying on the job -- by choice or financial necessity -- well past age 75, at least in the U.S., according to doctors and federal labor figures.

Until he leaves the Vatican, Benedict remains part of an elite roster of 80-plusers still on the job in public roles. They include business magnates John Willard “Bill” Marriott, Jr. (80) and Warren Buffett (82), actors Robert Duvall (82) and Betty White (91), politicians Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. (89), and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., (86), and journalist Morley Safer (81).

And, at least on the front lines of the U.S. workforce, gray is increasingly the way.

In January, 1.5 million Americans aged 75 and above were employed -- the highest monthly total in at least 10 years, a 21 percent increase over January 2012 and nearly double the number workers from that demographic group who were punching a clock in 2003. 

“You’re seeing it more often than you used to,” said Dr. Sarah McGee, a geriatrician at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. A small number of her patients have worked into their late 70s or 80s, and one man, into his 90s.

“Their health hasn’t precluded them from working. If you live to your 80s, you’re a survivor anyway,” McGee added. “That can be because you’ve done a good job of taking care of yourself, or because your parents or grandparents lived into their 90s, and you come from good stock.

As Catholics worldwide come to terms with the news that Pope Benedict XVI is abdicating his position, becoming the first pope to do so in more than 700 years, Georg Ratzinger, the pope's brother, says the aging process is impacting him "body and soul." NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Dr. Barbara J. Messinger-Rapport, head of the Center for Geriatric Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, also can count more of her patients drawing paychecks into their 80s simply because “people are living longer; they’re not dying in middle age from heart attacks or strokes due to better diets and medications and they often want to continue to work.”

Even for people who remain in relatively good health, their overall cognitive abilities -- including their brain’s processing speed -- naturally slows with age, with most folks achieving their quickest thinking around age 30 then plateauing throughout their 40s, Messinger-Rapport said.

“There may be episodic, short-term memory impairments” in advanced years, barring the onset of dementia or other brain diseases, she added. “However, creativity, judgment, long-term memory and organizational ability are maintained and can compensate for deficits in speed of processing.”

A person’s accumulated smarts also can raise their intellectual baseline so high that the eventual, age-related decline in some brain functions is far harder to measure or to see, McGee said.

“People who are more educated do better on these cognitive tests,” she added. “So to drop (their thinking skills) to a point where it’s going to be impacting their day-to-day living, they would have to drop a lot farther” than would others who don’t possess that kind of schooling or IQ.

Still, there's no escaping the fact that age can take a toll. Benedict may be the first pope to resign in more than 600 years, but as humans continue to push expected life spans to new heights while their joints, backs and brains strain to keep pace with the extra year, jobsonce thought to be 'til death -- monarch, Supreme Court justice, and, now, pope -- may be not so permanent.

In the Netherlands, Queen Beatrix, 75, said she plans to step down. In America’s highest court, 21 justices have retired since 1955, including John Paul Stevens, who was 90 when he left that role in 2010, according to The Associated Press.

In the private world, McGee has had several patients come to her with the age-old, agonizing question: Is it time for me to stop working?

In those few cases, the answers always were, but “they came to the decision themselves,” she said, usually because they could not drive any longer due to failing eyesight.

Benedict’s decision to abdicate his global duties and surrender his plush trappings came after he already had significantly scaled back his foreign travel -- a routine part of the job and done to sell the Roman Catholic faith to the masses. He also has reduced his audiences with visitors. Overall, his lighter daily load follows what many other older, high-powered workers do, trading, for example their chief executive roles for spots on the board of nonprofits or hospitals, geriatric experts said.

At St. Peter’s Basilica, Benedict has of late been riding on a moving platform instead of strolling about 100 yards to the altar.

Vatican spokesman Lombardi said he knows of no medical illness that prompted the decision, adding that the resignation was compelled by a "normal" deterioration of physical and mental strength that comes with old age, according to Catholic News Service.

Ironically, at his age and by Vatican rule, Benedict is five years too old to vote along with the College of Cardinals when they elect his successor. If the Catholic Church has deemed 80 to be the cutoff for having the proper mental faculties to make such a critical decision, what does say about the rest of us? How do we know, as well, when it’s time to leave the working world behind?

“I recommend that people cut back on either volunteer or paid jobs when they are unable to physically or cognitively manage them safely -- driving at night for a person with macular degeneration, for example, (or) climbing scaffolds for someone with a balance disorder or (who is) taking a blood thinner. If there is early dementia then that person should cut back on jobs that require handling money,” Messinger-Rapport said.

“But it is important for all adults to have meaningful activity, socialization, regular physical activity, and cognitive stimulation,” she added. “Many jobs provide that. And if working is in line with the patient’s financial and social goals then there may not be a reason to stop unless the job is too physically demanding.”

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