New research suggests that retirement may widen inequalities in stress and health.
The new study, published in the Journal of Gerontology, shows that poorer people, or people in low status occupations, often have poorer health and higher biological stress response levels upon retirement, while people in high status jobs have lower stress levels.
This widening in health inequalities could be a reflection of the accumulation of socioeconomic disadvantages over a lifetime, with early life inequalities in health becoming magnified over a person’s life, according to researchers.
Retirement, however, could potentially moderate this pattern of widening health inequalities, the researchers said. That’s because higher stress levels associated with lower status work could be mitigated by retirement.
For the study, researchers examined cortisol levels in workers who had recently retired.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that follows a diurnal profile, peaking around 30 minutes after awakening, and returning to very low levels by bedtime.
Stressors disrupt the diurnal profile of cortisol, resulting in elevated levels of cortisol and a flatter diurnal slope from the awakening response to bedtime. Flatter diurnal cortisol slopes are a key biomarker associated with higher levels of stress, the researchers said.
Flatter diurnal cortisol slopes are also associated with cardiovascular mortality — a one standard deviation increase in cortisol at bedtime was associated with a doubling of the relative risk of cardiovascular mortality within six to eight years, according to the researchers.
The study investigated whether workers who had recently retired had lower biological stress levels as indicated by steeper — and more advantageous — diurnal cortisol slopes compared to those still working in later life.
Researchers analyzed data from the London-based Whitehall II civil servants study, which included 1,143 people, with an average age of 60. Five samples were collected across a day, according to the researchers.
Civil service employment grade was used to categorize people into high, middle, or low grades.
The study found that retirement was associated with lower stress levels. Those who had recently retired had steeper diurnal slopes compared to those who remained in work.
But on further investigation, this apparent benefit of retirement on lowering biological stress response levels was only confined to those in high status jobs, the researchers discovered. Workers in the lowest status jobs had flatter diurnal cortisol slopes compared to those in the top jobs. And retirement increased, rather than decreased, these differences in biological stress levels, according to the study’s findings.
“It may seem counterintuitive that stopping low status work, which may be stressful, does not reduce biological levels of stress,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Tarani Chandola.
“This may be because workers who retire from low status jobs often face financial and other pressures in retirement. This study suggests that people’s stress levels are not just determined by immediate circumstances, but by long-run factors over the course of their lives.”
Source: Oxford University Press USA