Our Golden Years? Research Into The Ups And Downs Of Retirement, Digested

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By Emma Young

If you ever daydream about retirement, what do you picture? Lie-ins, instead of being woken by an alarm? Walks on a beach, in place of the morning commute? More time for beloved hobbies? Or perhaps endless open, solitary days, with nothing much to do…?

Retirement is what psychologists term a “major life transition”. As such, it’s regarded as a stressor that carries risks as well as potential rewards. Now that the number of retirees in many countries is soaring, so too is the number of studies into whether retirement is good for your mental and physical health — or not. This work certainly suggests that it can be, but there are a few warnings lurking in the results, too.

In the inaugural issue of the journal Work, Aging and Retirement, published in 2015, Cornell University psychologist Peter Bamberger reviewed existing research on alcohol and other drug abuse among retirees and concluded that while the two are linked, retirement per se is not the cause. Rather, concerns about money and marital strains — both potential, but not inevitable, consequences of retirement — were associated with sleep difficulties, and with alcohol abuse among men. Bamberger’s analysis also revealed that people who’d felt pushed into retiring were most at risk of these problems. “The worst combination was among people who took early retirement from jobs they loved because they were terrified their companies were going under,” he says. “Among all groups studied, this one exhibited the highest incidence of substance abuse.”

A long-running study following Finnish people as they transition away from full-time work is providing all kinds of insights into the impacts of retirement. Some of the results are positive; others, less so…

In 2017, a team including researchers at the University of Turku, where the project is based, published details of a survey on alcohol consumption among this group. At the time of retirement, one in eight developed “risky” levels of drinking (defined in this case as more than 24 units per week for men or 16 for women, or passing out due to extreme alcohol consumption). People in relatively low-status jobs and who lived in rural areas were most at risk. However, this was largely temporary; as the participants settled into retirement, there was a gradual decline in risky drinking.

The study is also revealing some benefits, however. One analysis, led by Saana Myllyntausta and published in 2018, showed that when participants retired, they slept approximately 20 minutes longer per night and the quality of their sleep also improved. The retirees reported fewer early morning awakenings, and feeling more refreshed after a night’s sleep.

However, a further study, led by Tuija Leskinen and also published in 2018, did find that they sat more, and more time spent sitting has been linked to poorer health. This group sat for an average of an hour and a quarter more each day on retiring. An extra half an hour per day spent watching TV helped to account for this.

The researchers don’t comment on the potential role of cold and dark Finnish winters in driving this result…. But in sunny Australia, the story seems to be different.

A major study that followed the lifestyle behaviours of more than 25,000 older Australians has found all kinds of positive shifts. Compared with people who were still working, the retirees spent 93 minutes more per week engaged in physical activity, sat down for 67 fewer minutes each day, and slept another 11 minutes per day. Also, half of the women who were smoking at the end of their working life stopped in retirement. There was no change in alcohol consumption. “Our research revealed that retirement was associated with positive lifestyle changes,” said lead researcher, Melody Ding, at the University of Sydney.

In fact, retirement can be viewed as a great window of opportunity to get out of harmful health patterns and into beneficial ones, Ding argues. The biggest lifestyle improvements that her team observed in this group were among people who’d been working full-time, rather than part-time. Take work and the daily commute out of your life, and there’s a lot more time for exercise and other activities, she notes. Ding hopes that these results can help people to think positively about retirement.

However, whether there are any actual improvements in physical health among older people who retire compared with those who stay in their jobs is less clear. Retirement itself doesn’t change the risk of major chronic illnesses such as respiratory disease, diabetes and heart disease, according to a study that assessed around 14,000 French men and women annually for 7 years prior to and 7 years after statutory retirement.

This research, which was published in the British Medical Journal in 2010, did find a substantial drop in mental and physical fatigue and also symptoms of depression with retirement, though. Perhaps, as the Finnish and Australian work suggests, this group started to sleep longer. But the findings on tiredness might also reflect that older people, who are close to the age of retirement, find work more challenging, the researchers write. Stop work, and that challenge lifts.

If the picture of the impacts of retirement on physical health seems a little unclear, well that’s exactly what a review of 22 longitudinal studies investigating links between retirement and health, published in 2013, concluded. The evidence on whether retirement affects perceived general health and physical health is contradictory, the researchers noted. For mental health, however, there was “strong evidence… for retirement having a beneficial effect.” On the whole, retirees reported improvements in symptoms of depression, distress and wellbeing.

Still, as we already know, there are some factors associated with retirement — such as whether or not it’s forced or truly voluntary or whether it causes real financial stress — that might not make for such a rosy picture. And though, as a general rule, retirement may be beneficial for mental health, that’s not to say that stopping work of any kind is a good thing.

In fact, now that “baby boomers” are retiring, so is the nature of retirement, note the authors of a study of people in the US, published earlier this year. Though here people typically retire from full-time work in their early to mid-60s, many go on to work part-time, perhaps in a different field, or start volunteering, or study, for example.

When the team, led by Jeremy Hamm and Jutta Heckhausen at the University of California, Irvine, analysed the data on 1,301 men and women around retirement age, they found that most people who were classed as being strongly engaged in various domains of life — with their romantic partners, children, their health, the welfare of others, their finances and work — maintained the same profile after retiring. “We found that work remained an important component of many people’s lives even after retirement,” they write.

What’s more, the people who reported high levels of engagement in many (rather than few) spheres of life before and after retirement showed a better psychological adjustment to this shift. They had higher levels of perceived control in their lives (linked to a reduced risk of depression), and reported experiencing greater wellbeing.

The main message from this work seems to be, yes, you may be leaving a long-term, and even a beloved, career on retiring; but that gives you more time to invest in family and physical exercise, for example, as well as other kinds of work. Maintaining all these investments of energy and time, or even increasing them, seems to be key to a psychologically successful transition.

The team agrees with Melody Ding: “Retirement can be viewed as involving significant losses (e.g. disengaging from a valued career) but it also reflects a period in the life course when there may be opportunity for significant gains.”

I’ll leave the last word on this topic to Des, an 89-year-old Australian man who took part in the research led by Ding, and who has clearly adjusted well: “My answering machine message is ‘I am out enjoying my retirement’.”

Coming soon… The Psychologist Guide to Retirement, at https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest