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Is Retirement Bad for Your Health?

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Retirement can seem like a dream, but it can also be one of the most stressful times of your life. According to the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, leaving the workforce for retirement ranks as the 10th most stressful events in a person’s life. So, is retirement actually a reward and a chance to relax, travel, and enjoy family and friends? Or is it a time to fear loneliness, declining health, boredom, and losing family and friends? Studies done over the past decade, including at Harvard Medical School, experts have concluded that it is a mix of the two extremes. And whether retirement is good or bad for your health depends greatly on how you approach it.

Retirement Health Depends on Other Factors 

“More studies have focused on physical rather than mental health, but the two are not as distinct as we often think,” says Donald Edmondson, Ph.D., MPH, associate professor of behavioral medicine and executive director of the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health at Columbia’s Irving Medical Center in New York. 

Studies conducted in the last 20 years of the 20th Century concluded retirement may lead to social isolation, a diminished sense of purpose, and worsening health. “However, recent large-scale studies from around the world suggest that—all other things held constant, retirement is actually associated with a rapid improvement in depression and satisfaction with life, as well as fewer healthcare expenditures and hospitalizations,” says Edmondson. 

Of course, there are variables, and some individuals may experience negative mental health consequences, “but they are not the norm.” Edmondson cites a 2019 study of health, aging, and retirement in Europe that estimated variability in retirement’s impact on depression. The study found that people who scored near the threshold for depression as retirement approached benefitted most from retirement. Women and workers in blue-collar jobs also benefitted. 

How to Plan for Health in Retirement

Whether you’ll find improved health in retirement or the opposite will, in part, depend on the retirement you craft for yourself.

“Set aside time to consider your values and goals. Ask what behaviors and activities are likely to move you closer to a life lived by them,” says Dr. Edmondson. “Include a plan for engaging in behaviors that support physical health because they pay substantial mental health dividends. Investing in relationships and activities that offer personal meaning and purpose can also pay mood-boosting dividends. 

“Physical activity is among the most consistently effective means for improving mood, sleep, and physical health. All of which improve mental health and set the conditions for achieving or maintaining a sense of purpose. A healthy diet, preferably with lots of plants at its core, helps too,” he adds.  

Healthy Retirement by Design

When Deb Evans, 70, of Millsboro, Delaware, was 60, she realized she wanted to retire sooner rather than later. So, after more than 25 years as a college administrator, she retired in February 2016. “I was ready for the next chapter,” she says. 

When Deb started planning, she was mindful of the importance of staying healthy as she aged and the part she would need to play to ensure she did. “I began with a reasonable, attainable dream, and my immediate family experience motivated me,” she says, of parents and a sister who all died between ages 70-74 and a brother who passed away at 65.  

Evans worked with the college’s financial planning representative to manage her retirement account and consulted with several Social Security professionals. Their expertise helped her develop “an affordable budget for my anticipated needs during retirement.” 

She also decided to move away from the home and region she had known for much of her life. “I wanted to be someplace where I had ‘vacation’ at my fingertips. I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford to do a lot of traveling.” 

Evans chose a townhome community halfway between her two daughters and their families. She’s near the beach with lots of options for outdoor activities, including boating and biking, two lifelong passions. And she brought along two four-legged friends to keep her company and active. 

Finding What Fulfillment Means For You 

Research shows that individuals will view their own retirement through the lens of what a fulfilling life means to them. Some ideas for crafting a fulfilling retirement include: 

  • Establish a new network of friends. Building a new community or returning to one you’ve left behind can be instrumental to your well-being when you can’t rely on colleagues or work friends anymore.
  • Play and be creative. Finding a way to spend your time creatively can help you connect with your sense of purpose and fun. 
  • Continue learning. Discovering new skills and ideas keeps your mind active and healthy.    
  • Relieve pressure. Take some time initially to do nothing but sleep in, take long walks, and think. Give yourself a break from the stress you’ve accumulated over the years in the rat race.
  • Exercise. Staying physically active is key to staying healthy. Look for something you enjoy doing to help you stay motivated. Lots of people are finding community, fun, and exercise in Pickleball.

Knowing What’s Best for You

Friends, family, and colleagues asked Evans how she could move alone to a new place where she knew no one. While that may not be the best choice for some, she knew she was making the right decision. 

“I researched this location for about three years. It met my main criteria: affordability, reasonable driving distance to my daughters, and an environment I was drawn to. I must have toured 50 homes, and I always came back to where I am now,” she says. “And I have never regretted my decision.” 

“When my daughters left after helping me move, I turned to my cat, Odie, and Wheaten Terrier, Sammy, and said, “Well, here we are. In our new home!” Sammy became her entrée to the community. Exploring the nearby state parks and beaches with Sammy “helped me get out and meet neighbors and gave me courage.” 

The time and effort Evans spent understanding her own needs and building the vision for a retirement she wanted have allowed her retirement to be a healthy and fulfilling time in her life. “I view this chapter as a beginning, not an ending, with a freedom to enjoy my life,” she says.