Monday, 30 April 2007

The Perils of Retirement

One can't help wondering sometimes if they knew more in the eighteenth century about the causes of ill health than we do now. Turning once again to Sterne's Tristram Shandy, we read:
No body, but he who has felt it, can conceive what a plaguing thing it is to have a man's mind torn asunder by two projects of equal strength , both obstinately pullling in a contrary direction at the same time: For to say nothing of the havoc, which by a certain consequence is unavoidably made by it all over the finer system of the nerves, which you know convey the animal spirits and more subtle juices from the heart to the head, and so on - It is not to be told in what a degree such a wayward kind of friction works upon the more gross and solid parts, wasting the fat and impairing the strength of a man every time as it goes backwards and forwards. Vol IV chapter 31
This, at an unconscious level, is not a bad description of the consequences of living a contradiction.

But what if one runs out of projects? How will this affect health? Well, it seems that some ex-American football players have this precisely this problem after retirement. A study reports that many ex-NFL players suffer from pain and depression. Further correlations are then found with sleep problems, lack of exercise, and financial difficulties.

But which way around is it best to take the causal flow? It is pleasing to see one of the study's researchers viewing things our way. Thomas Schenk claims:
On retirement, athletes have reported jarring transitions to a life in which the focus of such intense commitment is unclear, the resources and personnel that organized and managed their lives away from the competition venue are lost, and the rewards, both emotional and financial, are diminished.
A retired Detroit Lions player, Eric Hipple, was also on the team as an outreach coordinator for the University of Michigan Depression Center. It would be interesting to know how he, as someone with a purpose in life, is faring.

Retirement also featured in the latest findings of the Whitehall II study. This long term research programme has carefully studied British civil servants for over twenty years, finding that those of lower rank are significantly more likely to suffer from many of the major chronic diseases, and have higher mortality rates for these diseases, than their higher-ranked colleagues.

Now, Tarani Chandola and colleagues have found that this discrepancy only worsens after retirement.
The average physical health of a 70 year old man or woman who was in a high grade position was similar to the physical health of a person from a low grade around eight years younger. In mid-life, this gap was only 4.5 years. Although mental health improved with age, the rate of improvement is slower for men and women in the lower grades.
Speculations concerning this discrepancy mention the ability to purchase better food and to have a more active social life. It would be interesting to approach this cohort in the same terms as those Schenk used in the quotation above.

Sterne had an excellent solution for his character Uncle Toby's retirement - to re-enact the major sieges of Flanders on a rood and a half of what had been his bowling green as they were freshly reported. The only flaw in this scheme, however, was that it left poor Toby vulnerable to the Peace of Utrecht.

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