Health effects of retirement have proved hard for researchers to assess
By Jill U. Adams,
A typical workday begins with the alarm clock. You shower, dress, eat and leave the house. You walk, drive, bike or train in to work; you chat with your co-workers; you stress over your to-do list; you meet with your boss or underlings; you sit at your desk and stare into the screen. Before you get home, you’ve probably also eaten lunch, run errands, hit the gym or the basketball court, and perhaps visited a friend or a relative.
When people stop working, everything about their weekday schedule changes. Their lives may move more slowly and be more relaxed. Losing work-related stress may come as a huge relief — and be good for your health. But losing your everyday movement and social interaction can also harm your health.
So what is likely to happen to you? The scientific studies on the health effects of retirement are mixed, even contradictory. Designing such studies is difficult because retirees are usually older than workers and the conditions that are typically measured, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and arthritis, become more common as people age.
For instance, in 1983 researchers assessed the effects of retirement on 638 men ages 55 to 73 as part of a Department of Veterans Affairs effort called the Normative Aging Study. Overall, the physical health of the men worsened over the three to four years they were followed, but no difference was found between those who were still working and those who had retired.
A 2010 British study of more than 7,500 civil servants found, on average, the mental health scores and physical functioning of retirees were better than those of working people of similar age.
The research isn’t always rosy. A 2012 study followed 5,422 men and women age 50 and older for up to 10 years and found a
40 percent increased risk of stroke and heart attacks among those who had retired compared with those who had continued working; this effect was strongest in the first year of retirement.
Some studies have tested the idea that stopping work can lead to depression or other mood disorders.
A 2011 study of 7,138 Finnish retirees found that among people who retired because of age, the prevalence of antidepressant use fell by about 1 percent from one year before to one year after retirement. In people who retired due to mental health issues, antidepressant use decreased by about 9 percent in the same period.
David Ekerdt, director of the University of Kansas Gerontology Center in Lawrence and co-author of the 1983 VA study, says that since the 1950s, people have been trying to show that retirement is stressful, bad for health and destructive to people’s sense of self. But “the evidence, when you pile it up, says that’s just not the case,” he says.
When ill health follows retirement, it’s tempting to conclude that one caused the other. The coincidental timing of two things that happen as people age complicates the research, Ekerdt says. He likes to tell the story of legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, who died of a heart attack barely a month after he retired. But Bryant had been dealing with serious cardiovascular health issues for three years by then. “Bryant’s physicians were telling him to retire or he would be dead,” Ekerdt says.
How to stay healthy
To stay healthy after retirement, experts advise people to schedule activities outside the house.
“If you think you’ll just sit around and relax, that’s probably not a good plan,” because it can lead to weight gain and social isolation, says Michael Gloth, a Johns Hopkins gerontologist who recently took a post as chief medical officer at a retirement community in Naples, Fla. “A planned activity and social interaction can lead to better health and well-being.”
Gloth points to people who do something as simple as going to religious services every day. “It’s a morning activity that gets people up and out. Often, people go out for coffee afterwards.” Such a schedule provides spiritual nourishment, social interaction, and it helps people develop a support system that can be helpful during such stressful events as moving to a new place or losing one’s spouse.
The life-changing transition of retirement is particularly acute in the Washington area, “where people are on their BlackBerries 24/7,” says Gwen Paulson, a career and retirement coach. With retirement, she says, “Their BlackBerry calendar is wiped clean. For some people, this is incredibly traumatic.”
Paulson counsels her retiring clients to nourish their mind, body and spirit. For the mind, that can mean reading, taking up a new language, traveling, “anything that requires the brain to do more than be on autopilot.” For the body, getting seven to eight hours of sleep, exercising and eating well-balanced meals are important. And for spirit, she says, “faith-based activities, yes, but also meditation, volunteering, getting involved in a cause.”
Social interactions are key when you retire, Paulson says. People don’t always realize how all-encompassing their work lives are until they give them up.
Many people make short-term plans for retirement — what Paulson calls a “honeymoon experience. “They’ll take that fabulous cruise or remodel the house and then think: ‘Now what?’ ”
“Most people define themselves by their job,” Ekerdt says. “When they retire, they need a narrative about who they are now. Finding that answer is important for the next phase of your life.”