12 Apr 2013

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, aged 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 7500 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 5422 men and women aged 50 and older for up to 10 years and found a 40 per cent increased risk of stroke and heart attacks among those who had retired, compared with those who had continued working.

David Ekerdt, 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.

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.”

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.

She counsels her retiring clients to nourish their mind, body and spirit by reading, taking up a new language, traveling, getting plenty of sleep, exercising and eating well-balanced meals.


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