Why Do Men Crumble When They Retire?
Retirement blues can lead to real physical consequences. But does it impact men more?
When it comes to men, Indian men specifically, the narrative is pretty straightforward. Study, work, marry, work some more, send kids to college, retire.
Work hard enough to ensure your retirement is financially secure. And then sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour.
But here's where that perfectly baked cookie crumbles.
Six months post retirement, suddenly health issues crop up. The heart is not quite ticking right, the blood pressure is shooting up (or spiralling down), there are bouts of depression, anger, frustration.
Travel plans are put on hold, hospital visits increase and there is a withdrawal from social life. A recent study gathered data that was statistically significant. Too many men were dying at the age of 62 in the US. The study seemed to indicate that retirement had something to do with it.
While it's a US specific data, doctors report a similar pattern in India, where life expectancy in men is 67.4 years according to National Health Profile 2019.
At a 2 year lag post retirement, we do see many elderly patients who are suddenly battling illnesses they hadn't faced before. There are two main reasons I see for this - a massive shift to a sedentary lifestyle and mental impact of isolation.Dr Azad M Irani, Neurologist, Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre
What Goes Wrong?
In Vedas, 4 stages of life are laid out for a man:
Brahmacharya (life of a student, celibacy)
Grihastha (married man)
and Sannyasa (ascetic, hermit)
Each stage has a purpose. You are born to achieve something, fulfil certain social responsibilities and then move towards self discovery. But where does despondency creep in?
Dr Manjari Tripathi, a neurologist from AIIMS explains it:
Men have traditionally always had a superficial role to play outside workspace, say at home or at community at large. So when they retire there is a withdrawal effect. Women on the other hand have a purpose of life both at home, at work and at the community at large. So even after she retires, she has her commitments that gives her purpose.
But both Dr Irani and Dr Samir Parekh, a psychiatrist from Fortis Hospitals, Delhi warns against generalisations when it comes to gender, saying retirement blues impact both working sexes.
You need to plan for life at any stage of life, and that planning has to include financial, social and mental health planning as well. This is irrespective of gender. Whenever you move from an active, productive life to that of isolation, it will have an impact.Dr Samir Parekh
Brains of Men and Women Age Differently
A recent study told us women what we've always known. A healthy woman's 'metabolic brain age' was consistently younger than that of men of the same age.
The study helps better understand the differences in cognitive decline rate between men and women. Basically it tells us why women remain sharper for longer and are more resilient to ageing related health issues.
Sugar (glucose) fuels our brain. But how the brain metabolises the sugar changes as we age. While both male and female brain metabolisms show signs of decline, in men the metabolism is more sluggish.
But this alone does not explain why men at retirement struggle more than women. There, sociological and psychological factors come in.
While the study is interesting and throws up possibilities for us to explore, it's too small to draw any serious conclusions at this stage.Dr Irani
Loneliness of Being Old
As old family structures have crumbled, loneliness among the elderly has become a public health issue, warn experts. It's been linked to physical illness and cognitive decline. Even in the company of a spouse, men often find themselves lonely and isolated. Having never made their spouses an equal partner, they struggle. This study has found a clear link between loneliness and early death, pegging it as a bigger risk factor than obesity.
Loneliness has been linked to increased levels of stress hormone, cortisol, and vascular distress that can lead to high blood pressure and decreased blood flow to organs.
Despondency and loneliness can have serious health consequences - depression, stroke, dementia and dependency. It can excasberate virtually all other physical ailments that come with old age.Dr Manjari Tripathi
Does it also age the brain faster? Dr Parekh says that the brain is already at a stage of decline when you enter your senior years. Lack of brain stimulation, along with lifestyle changes, declining social network and support systems can make that process that much more evident.
Retirement Age, Activity and Keeping the Brain Young
Ashok Agarwal is 80. Every morning he wakes up at 5 am, goes for a 45 min walk, has a healthy breakfast and heads to work. He's travelled the world and has no interest in slowing down or retiring. He's battled prostate cancer, death of a spouse and loss of a younger sibling. But what he fears most is not having anything to do. "I am going to work till whenever I can. I'll drive, update my gadgets, travel and keep upto date with my medical checkups," he says.
There's an economic argument for increasing the retirement age to 65. The recent Economic Survey even suggested it. But does it also make sense medically? There's no single answer.
Dr Tripathi suggests 65 would be more apt. And post that every six months there should be a cognitive and physical capacity assessment.
But more importantly, if there is functionality, if you want to and if it gives you satisfaction, go ahead and work, suggests Dr Parekh.
Dr Irani says plan your life not just financially, but also emotionally and mentally. Pick up hobbies in your 30s and 40s that you can pursue full time when you retire, join NGOs or social communities. As for planning for your health, the cut off date is 30. They year you turn 30, you need to look at your lifestyle and evaluate where it will leave you when you retire.
Schedule brain friendly activities, learn new tasks like computer languages, music, reading, sudoku, puzzles etc. Keep socially active. Paint, garden, walk, exercise, take up yoga or spiritual activities. Eat brain healthy foods and avoid red meat.Dr Manjari Tripathi
Basically, retire from work, not from life.
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