Aim To find out how health status, work ability and job‐related factors were associated with premature departure from working life in an 11 year follow‐up period.

Methods The study population was composed of 126 ageing food industry employees. Baseline data were derived from medical examinations and self‐completed questionnaires in 1989. The follow‐up data were collected in 2000. Data analyses were performed by independent samples t‐tests and Mann–Whitney and χ2 tests.

Results Several chronic diseases, higher degree of work impairment due to diseases, long‐term sickness absence, stress symptoms, low scores in work ability index, poor subjective work ability and physical work ability, and heavy physical workload seemed to be factors associated with early departure from working life among ageing food industry employees.

Conclusion Identification of these factors, prevention of sickness and promotion of work ability seem to be the most important tools to reduce premature exit from working life.