Getting better . . .

Despite the ominous overtones to the concept of being gotten by that "ol rocking chair," despite the widely held misapprehensions about the inevitability of the downward slide, retirement need not be damaging to anybody's health, no matter your age. This cheerful assessment comes from Dr. Valery Portnoi, writing in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Portnoi, a geriatrician at the George Washington University Medical Center, says that the prevailing medical opinion that "retirement causes demoralization and declining health" is oversimplified. Even a recent study suggesting that retirement "may, indeed, predispose one to a fatal heart attack," may have really indicated that "coronary heart disease was a risk factor in one's decision to retire, rather than vice versa . . ."

What is important, says Portnoi, is to:

Plan -- financially and socially -- for retirement as much as 10 years before the time.

Acquire and nurture good health habits.

Cultivate old friends and family relationships.

Cultivate new interests.

Portnoi suggests that physicians would make excellent retirement counselors, but they must first free themselves of biases and prejudices about retirement.

"The medical community," he writes, "should recognize that there are scientific data to substantiate the idea drawn from isolated impressions that retirement is associated with illnesses, deterioration -- and premature death."

Let it all drip out . . .

Another cultural no-no which turns out to be healthful is crying. Scientists now know that tears literally wash out systemic poisons which build up during stressful times. (Onion tears don't count: Tests show they are devoid of the chemicals of emotional teardrops.)

And not only is it healthy to cry, but it is absolutely unhealthy to hold back your tears. This goes for men as well as women, according to some psychiatrists quoted in an article in the April Glamour magazine.

And because tears are considered unmanly or (in the case of women executives) unprofessional, scientists are now suggesting that crying -- or not crying -- may be related to sexual differences in the incidence of ulcers or high blood pressure (men get both more often) and increases in these stress-related ailments among women executives.

oops . . .

Patients all look alike to doctors. It's no joke. Once they're ready for sugery -- supine, sedated, scrubbed and swathed in hospital-issue garments -- not even their mothers could pick them out of a crowd.

So it is unhappily, sometimes tragically inevitable that once in a while, either the wrong surgery is done on the right patient, or the patients are mixed up.

In one of those bursts of commonsense ideas that seem so obvious it's a mystery nobody thought of them before, Dr. Harvey Cain, an occupational medicine specialist, and Janet Peyton, a recovery room assistant (both with Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento), have proposed that hospital personnel routinely write "NOT THIS SIDE" on a patient's portions NOT scheduled for surgery.

Either marking pen or plastic strips could be used, they suggest in a recent letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association. They also suggest that the labeling be done while the patient is awake, and that the patient also initial it.

Kaiser spokesman Tom Lease said last week that Kaiser is considering the idea for that mammouth health maintenance organization's own 19 facilities in Northern California. "It would be one more factor," he said, "in the psychological well being of patients."

There could also be codes indicating the type of operation planned on a specific patient to keep patients from being mistaken for one another. Cain and Peyton got the idea from news reports of a child with an eye cancer whose good eye was mistakenly removed by the surgeon. "They felt," said Lease, "that one time for a thing like that is one time too many." (The child was not a Kaiser patient.)

National belly ache . . .

The Gutline is going national -- at least for a few days this month. In connection with the annual national convention of gastgroenterologists in New York, the American Digestive Disease Socity is setting up a toll-free number for forty days. Specialists from Washington, Baltimore, New York and other parts of the country will answer questions about the many ills, major or minor, which can affect the digestive system.

The doctors will take calls at 800-223-0292 from May 17 through May 20 during these hours (Eastern Daylight Time): 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 8 p.m.

If you don't think your tumtum can hold out until then, call the Washington area Gutline at 652-5524 on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7:30 to 9. (The area line will not operate during the days the national number is in effect.)