Is retirement good for your health? Probably, but you have to work at it


Washington Post Service

A typical workday begins with the alarm clock. You shower, dress, eat and leave the house. You walk, drive, bike or take a train 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 and perhaps visited with 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 be harmful.

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.

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.

Since the 1950s, people have been trying to show that retirement is stressful, bad for health and destructive to people’s sense of self, says David Ekerdt, director of the University of Kansas Gerontology Center in Lawrence and co-author of the 1983 VA study. But “the evidence, when you pile it up, says that’s just not the case.”

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.

On the other hand, a 2012 study that had followed 5,422 men and women age 50 and older for up to 10 years 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.

When ill health follows retirement, it’s tempting to conclude that one caused the other, but teasing out the relationship is complicated. Ekerdt, co-author of the VA study, cites 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, and “Bryant’s physicians were telling him to retire or he would be dead,” Ekerdt says.

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. “A planned activity and social interaction can lead to better health and well-being.”

Gloth points to people who do something as simple as attending religious services daily. “It’s a morning activity that gets people up and out. Often, people go out for coffee afterwards.”

Such a schedule provides spiritual nourishment and social interaction and nurtures a support system that can be helpful during such stressful events as moving or losing one’s spouse.

The life-changing transition of retirement is particularly acute in fast-paced areas “where people are on their BlackBerries 24/7,” says Gwen Paulsen, a career and retirement coach. “Their BlackBerry calendar is wiped clean. For some people, this is incredibly traumatic.”

Paulsen counsels her retiring clients to nourish their minds, bodies and spirits. 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, Paulsen 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 Paulsen 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.”

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