I subscribe to a number of research digest emails, many highlighting molecular research which, for the most part, I find profusely boring and impractical. But one headline from Medscape caught my eye: “When It Comes to Work, How Old is Too Old?”
The intro made reference to the author’s grandfather and, in many ways, immediately reminded me of my own grandfather (which I’ll address later).
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The passage read:
My 92-year-old grandfather cuts hay atop a 5-ton tractor each summer, baling winter feed for more than 800 head of cattle. The rest of the year he herds, corrals, immunizes, and cares for the cattle.
But digging further into the implications of this question, it spurred a number of thoughts on what will no doubt become a growing issue – particularly in places like the United States due to the current economic quagmire.
I just read a related article today on the 14 trillion dollar debt and that there are plans to dip into federal pension funds to keep the country afloat. Connecting the dots, I seriously question whether those reaching retirement age will actually be able to retire at all if there’s nothing left in the coffers to pay retirees.
While continuing to work well past age 70 might seem like a fate worse than death for most, I’d argue that, from a health perspective, this might even be a good thing!
Retirement is Bad For Your Health
As far as I’m concerned, I believe the idea of retiring at 65 is antiquated and only contributes to age-associated declines in physical and mental health. I’m sure you can think of someone you know who retired and then sat back in their easy chair waiting for the grim reaper to come knocking on the door. You may have noticed a loss of muscle tone and a steadily encroaching waistline.
On the other hand, I’m sure you can also think of people who’ve retired from their careers but continued to lead physically active lives, kept involved in social events, and perhaps even went back to work a part-time job just to have something to do!
As a health professional, I believe the latter is a much more productive way to live in so-called retirement. The article references a publication by Rohwedder and colleagues in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (2010; 24:119-138) and states:
Many workers benefit significantly from continuing to work into old age. Work is “medicine” — even better than medicine for many. In addition to providing economic security and often wider access to healthcare options, work enhances well-being, promotes social interaction, increases the variety and quality of life, and provides many people with a sense of accomplishment and achievement. Although some older individuals work out of necessity, many report that they continue to work to contribute, or to “make a difference.” Almost all jobs help older people sustain and extend their physical activity level and support increased social engagement and larger support networks. Work provides accountability for many; an absence from work may serve as the first sign to warn distant family that something is wrong with a loved one. Emerging evidence also suggests that work may improve brain health, sustain healthy cognition, and protect memory.
The overarching theme here seems to be that NOT working is hazardous to your health! In my experience working in a hospital-based cardiac rehab program, I’ve seen many older people come into the clinic after a massive heart attack and open-heart surgery and, after pushing through the first couple weeks of exercise sessions, they begin to feel better physically (as expected).
More importantly, they develop a sense of social connectedness by relating their personal stories with other patients sharing similar medical histories. I found this effect to be even more pronounced in widowers who, after having lost a spouse, given up their careers (evil retirement!), and feathering an empty nest, were basically sitting around doing nothing up until their hospitalization. In a twisted version of irony, it may very well be that a small heart attack was just what they needed to shake off the retirement blues and rediscover the joy of living again.
The Body Only Knows Neglect, Not Age
In my lectures, I like to use a quote I once heard regarding age and health: “The body does not know age….the body only knows neglect!” And in my line of work, I can confirm wholeheartedly the unequivocal truth in this statement.
Stories of Resilience and the Human Spirit
I recall the story of a former patient named Norma. She was a dainty grandmotherly lady in her late 70s who’d never set foot in a gym in her life. Upon arrival to cardiac rehab, she was a bit intimidated by all the treadmills and bikes. After familiarization with the equipment, she developed a comfort level with exercise and, dare I say, even became an exercise junkie! She was there religiously three days a week, on time, all the time, every time. She even showed up by accident on a public holiday when the clinic was closed! All of us at the clinic developed a fondness for her and even gave her the moniker “Stormin’ Norma!”
Bonnie was another patient of ours who was in her early to mid 90s. Despite some limitations in her eyesight, she was quite resilient and always willing to try any exercise we put in front of her. By the time I left the clinic to pursue other professional goals, she was doing a pretty solid pace on the treadmill, tolerating a fair workload on the stationary bike, rowing on the rowing ergometer, lifting weights, and taking yoga classes.
The two words you frequently heard out of her mouth were, “I’ll try.” Whenever we asked her to try a new exercise, her response was always the same: “I’ll try.” And as I took a step back and looked at her, I realized she was so functional and spry simply because she refused to roll over and take frailty as a given!
Exercise is Hard, No Exercise is Even More Difficult
Some older people think that exercise is “too hard” but the reality is, life WITHOUT physical activity is exponentially harder. Sure, if you exercise, you’re probably going to have some sore muscles and pinched nerves once in a while, but the penalty for doing nothing is far worse than a few transient aches and pains.
I’ve led a very physically active life over the years and, in spite of knee injuries, broken ribs, a tweaked back, and pulled muscles (and the list goes on), I still think it was all worth it. Again, the penalty for a physically inactive life is a slow, insidious onset of degenerative orthopaedic and metabolic dysfunction, not to mention the decrement in cognitive function – yes, exercise is good for the brain, too!
Ode to an Active Family
On a more personal note, I love it when I speak to my mother and she tells me about all the gardening work she’s doing around the house (especially now that it’s springtime in the US). Ok, so it’s not quite like going to the gym and giving the body a good flogging, but it does constitute physical activity, it’s functional and relevant to her life, and she enjoys it – ticks all the boxes as far as I can tell!
In closing, I’d like to pay homage to my own grandfather and his personal brand of “exercise,” even before it was the trendy thing to do. My memories of him would have reflected his so-called retirement years, but seeing how he moved about, you’d never have known he was “retired.”
Before I go on, you have to understand, he lived in a rural area in central-western Pennsylvania which means open space…and lots of it.
I fondly remember him going out into the field next to the house and using a scythe to chop down large areas of tall grass. Being a farmer, he was out there with a hoe and preparing the soil for laying down crops. He kept some animals so he built his own sheds to house them. Even when he wasn’t “working” he always seemed to be doing something physical.
In the summers, we’d go fishing which would entail hiking around the lake to find a good spot to cast out our lines. In the winter, he’d spend all day out in the woods hunting with my dad, uncles, and older cousins.
But one lasting memory I have of him that still remains strong to this day was when he would kick my sister and me out of the house and refused to let us watch television! He’d slap a hammer and nails in our hands and say something along the lines of “get out there and wack some nails into 2 x 4s!” Pop-Pop walked on water in my eyes so whatever he said must have been the right thing to do!
While he may not have had all the science background on child obesity and inactivity physiology, he certainly had enough common sense and intuitiveness to know what was good for us.
Despite all the doomsday headlines telling soon-to-be retirees to fear for the worst, I think it’s all for naught. We’re already living longer due to modern medical technology, so why not help it along by beginning a second career at 65!