IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Retirement is bad for your health

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 19, 2013

NOT long ago, The Straits Times ran a piece quoting researchers as saying that work may actually lengthen your life. It's probably way too early for me - in my 60s - to weigh in on this debate, but so far, touch wood, I couldn't agree more.

For me, a day without writing is a day when I don't feel fulfilled. In fact, I get downright edgy if I am not working on something, or I don't have a lead to write in my head as I drift off to sleep.

I have always maintained I am one of the fortunate ones. I knew what I wanted to do when I was in my last year at primary school. Five years later I joined my hometown newspaper. Back then you could do that. Not any more.

Today I am just as enthused about what I do, perhaps even more so. In fact, journalism has become so intertwined with the way I have led my life over the past five decades, I would find it almost impossible to separate the two.

Securing the job that fits you from the outset has to be pure luck. I know a lot of journalists who started out earning degrees in everything from law to electrical engineering, then once they left university found those careers were not for them.

Many people hate what they do and can't wait to put their feet up. That thought, what they call "retirement", actually terrifies me - if only because it seems like capitulation. The final act. Who was the idiot who called retirement the "golden years"?

Researchers at Britain's Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) found retirement to be linked to a significant increase in clinical depression and a decline in self-assessed health, and that these effects grew in proportion to the number of years spent in retirement.

"Although initially there may be a small bounce in health, over the medium-longer term retirement causes a drastic decline in health," the IEA study said, noting that the research applied to both men and women.

Similarly, a 2008 study by the Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research found retirement lessened mobility and daily activities by 5 per cent to 16 per cent. It also argued that a resulting reduction in physical exertion and social interaction harmed mental health.

There may be little medical evidence to support it, but for someone whose late elder sister suffered through a decade of Alzheimer's, I have always believed that keeping the brain engaged is the best antidote against the disease.

Also, spending an hour on the rowing machine every day is as important to me as writing a story. It clears the head and, without doing any damage to the knees (knee in my case), ensures a straight back, improved flexibility and, hopefully, better health.

If I ever have a tombstone it should read "So Many Stories, So Little Time". When the regional magazine I worked for forced me to retire from the permanent staff after I reached 60, I was deeply annoyed. I was, after all, one of its most productive correspondents.

The US firm that owned the magazine could never have got away with that in the US, where these days about 40 per cent of potential retirees say money has nothing to do with it. They simply don't want to stop working.

The IEA's Work Longer, Live Healthier study was considered to be particularly significant in Britain because of the way demographic changes are putting pressure on state pensions and health-care costs, a problem other countries share as well.

It says retirement decreases the likelihood of being in "very good" or "excellent" health by 40 per cent, increases the probability of suffering from clinical depression by 40 per cent and raises the prospect of at least one diagnosed physical condition by 60 per cent.

"This is clear evidence the government should pursue policies that remove barriers to working longer," the study maintains. "Higher state pension ages are both possible and desirable and should lead to better average care in old age."

There are opposing views, of course, particularly from other researchers who feel the big question is whether the physical deterioration after retirement occurs because it is underlying poor health that leads people to end their working lives in the first place.

The younger generation won't be pleased, fearing that in a job market already constrained by automation and computers, retaining older workers will make finding jobs that much harder.

Employers prefer younger workers because they don't have to pay them as much. What they lose, however, is experience. In my business, I believe the trade-off has been a serious deterioration in journalistic standards across the board.

Anyway, I object to people calling me old. What may have been considered ancient 30 years ago, isn't that any more as long as the health is good, the marbles are intact and the contribution still has real value.

"I worry about the end of my career far more than I worry about ageing," 68-year-old Scottish pop singer Rod Stewart writes in his 2012 autobiography. "If I go a month without a concert, I get all jittery." Sound familiar?

As the seemingly ageless Stewart notes, there is no template for growing old as a rock star. That pretty much applies to all of us like-minded oldies. We just don't want to call it a day.

thane.cawdor@gmail.com

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 19, 2013

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