Retirement Could Be Bad for Health
May 30, 2013
By Dr. Mercola
Are you counting down the days until you can retire and spend your days playing golf, traveling, being with your grandkids or sipping iced tea from your front porch swing?
This idealistic image is a common one, but it may be somewhat unrealistic according to new research that suggests retiring may have a significantly negative impact on your physical and emotional health.
Retirement Boosts Your Risk of Depression by 40 Percent
According to a new report released by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA),1 following an initial boost in health, retirement increases your risk of clinical depression by 40 percent while raising your chances of being diagnosed with a physical condition by 60 percent. It also:
- Reduces your likelihood of being in self-reported excellent or very good health by 40 percent
- Raises your risk of taking medication for a diagnosed physical condition by 60 percent
The study’s author, who called retirement’s impacts on health “drastic,” suggested a later retirement age may actually be preferable, noting: 2
“New research presented in this paper indicates that being retired decreases physical, mental and self-assessed health. The adverse effects increase as the number of years spent in retirement increases.”
Staying Active Is a Key to Good Health in Old Age
That retirement might increase health problems is not entirely surprising when you consider that two of the biggest hurdles facing the elderly are social isolation and inactivity.
Harvard Professor of Public Policy Lisa Berkman cites social isolation as a significant factor in longevity. If you're socially isolated, you may experience poorer health and a shorter lifespan. This may be, at least in part, because those who don't have good social networks may not be able to get assistance if they become ill. But also, staying socially connected with those around you keeps you happy and also keeps your brain active and challenged.
Walter Breuning, who lived to be 114, noted that keeping your mind and body busy was one of the key secrets to staying healthy, and he was right. But for many, retirement means a sudden loss of many work-related social ties and a drastic decrease in activity levels.
So it’s quite plausible that retirement’s impact on your health depends on the type of retirement you have. If you end up sitting at home by yourself instead of interacting with peers and staying active with hobbies and other pursuits, it’s likely both your physical and mental health will suffer.
On the other hand, if your retirement allows you the time to pursue interests you’ve always wanted to and gives you more time to spend with friends and family, you’ll probably be happier than ever. Indeed, some research has, in fact, shown that retirement is associated with lower risks of depression and fatigue.3
Another factor, of course, is whether or not you enjoy your work. Someone who loves his or her job will obviously have a harder time with retirement than someone who dreads going to work. Even the current study’s author acknowledged the complexities of studying retirement’s role on health:4
“Most research on the relationship between health and working in old age has produced ambiguous results. Research in this area is inherently difficult because of the fact that, just as retirement can influence health, health can influence retirement decisions.”
Maintaining Structure and Finding Purpose in Your Day Are Keys to a Happy Retirement
Retirement is not much different from losing your job in that many struggle with a loss of identity and structure. The key role that may have defined who you are, your purpose and your daily routine is suddenly no longer there. But keep in mind that now you are free to develop a new role for yourself in life, and this can be very freeing and exciting.
The solution is to maintain some type of structure to your day. You may not have to set your alarm for 5 a.m. anymore, but perhaps you’ll make a point to get up at 7 a.m. each day to get showered and dressed for the day. From there, develop a new routine that makes sense for you and that allows you to fall into a comfortable yet still productive new “normal.”
My mom is a great example. She is now 77 but still comes to work in my office a few times a week. It really provides her with a sense of purpose and keeps her mentally healthy.
So make a point to nurture your passions while filling your days with activity and purpose, whether that be planting a garden, walking your dog or building model ships. Be sure at least some of your activities also involve others, such as taking a yoga class at a nearby gym or connecting with your neighbors. You can even “unretire” yourself and get a fun part-time job, such as working at a baseball stadium, volunteering at the zoo or an animal shelter, or reading stories to kids at your local library.
Another aspect to consider? How retirement will change your relationship with your spouse. If you’re suddenly able to spend much more time with your spouse than you were before, it can sometimes lead to tension. Make a point to keep communicating and sharing your new desires and needs with each other, while at the same time allowing for alone time.
Americans’ Expectations of Retirement Are Changing…
The days of retiring at the age of 65 are over for many. In fact, a report by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that 56 percent of Americans expect to work past age 65 or do not plan to retire at all.5 Further, the majority of workers (54 percent) plan to work even after they retire. The truth is, many people are now embracing their older years as some of the most fulfilling of their lives. Reaching age 65 no longer means that it’s time to retire to your home and deal with aches and pains, forgetfulness and loneliness; instead, for many this is a time for new beginnings.
Remember your health can actually improve as you age. For most, this is relatively easy as they were eating the wrong foods and not exercising most of their lives.
But even for someone like myself who has paid diligent attention to these factors, I am constantly revising my health regimen and now in my late 50s, I believe I am the fittest I have ever been in my life. I may have been able to run faster when I was younger but I would never trade that for the muscle strength, flexibility and knowledge that I have today. You too can achieve wellness on both physical and mental fronts, and you can do so at any age, whether you’re retired or not. In fact, in many respects life only continues to get better as the years go by.
This, of course, depends on your ability to stay healthy and happy, so with that in mind, I urge you to check out my list of the top dozen lifestyle strategies I believe can make the biggest difference in your total well-being at any age.