Retirement: When You Slow Down You Decline and Die

By Pamela D. Wilson, MS, BS/BA, NCG, CSA

Part of retirement is the goal of avoiding health declines. It is said that “when you slow down, you die,”  Avoiding health declines after retirement can be like having another job. The job is to remain physically and mentally active and to remain as independent as possible. Most older adults want to remain at home. 

My Aunt Zos was an amazing woman; full of energy and spunk. She worked in an office doing what— I don’t recall. What I do recall, at my very young age of 5, is that she was always coming and going. She never seemed to stop. She played the piano, danced, attended social events, had many friends, and was brimming with life. Aunt wore pretty dresses. Her hair was always styled. The smell of her perfume was intoxicating. Aunt Zos retired at the age of 65 and died in a time frame that seemed to me like minutes after retirement.

Retirement Dreams

We all dream of retiring. For how many is retirement a positive endeavor? Living longer does not mean living well. Statistics warn about the sedentary lifestyle of older adults. Watching television all day isn’t healthy. Neither is sitting at a computer all day.

Do you remember the quote, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste,” by Arthur Fletcher former head of the United Negro College Fund? Actor, Jack Nicholson, has a similar quote, “the minute you’re not learning, I believe that you’re dead.”

Slowing Down in Retirement May Result In Health Declines

The same might be said for a lack of physical activity which is associated with the risk of developing dementia and other chronic health diagnoses that won’t kill you but certainly make daily life miserable. Fatigue is a frequent symptom of a serious illness that may be undiagnosed.

Is there truth in the idea that when we slow down, we die?  Four common measures: walking speed, sit-to-stand ability, balance, and grip strength are common measurements of physical and health decline as we age. Remaining intellectually engaged supports cognitive health. Remaining physically engaged supports activity and socialization.

For all adults, improving health care and learning about chronic disease supports better health after retirement. This involves a willingness to become a life-long learner. 

Bodies and Minds Weaken Without Activity

Many of us take our bodies and our minds for granted. A very low percentage of the population participates in regular exercise. Even if we exercise, we may not realize that we have serious deficits that relate to measures that support good health. How many of us feel as strong and agile as we were in our twenties or thirties?

Answer the following questions to gauge if you are maintaining or taking away from your future quality of life.

  • How far and how fast do you walk on a daily basis?
  • Are you able to complete common balance exercises with ease or do you struggle and lose your balance?
  • How is your grip strength; can you open bottles and jars?
  • How many times are you able to stand (and sit down repetitively) from a sitting position in a chair with no arms?

These four questions seem simple yet if you answer the questions honestly, you might find that you fail in one or more of the four areas. If yes, this is a warning sign to take action to protect your physical strength, balance, and ability.

A link to a list of exercises for older adults is posted below in this article. (3) Please consult your doctor before performing any type of physical activity or exercises. 

Fatigue is a Serious Health Concern

Fatigue, or being continually tired, is likely a symptom of a serious health concern. (2)  If you feel constantly tired, see your doctor for a check-up. It is also possible that you may be fatigued because you are not physically active; you are a couch or chair potato. Increased activity equals increased energy.

What happens when you become ill and lie in bed for a few days? It seems that it takes more effort to return to a normal routine after we’ve been physically sedentary. Chronic disease contributes to days of not feeling well. 

As we age, our bodies weaken and decline. We succumb to physical difficulties resulting from accidents or injuries we sustained from engaging in sporting and other activities. Over the years, our bodies work to protect our injured body parts. We become unable to stretch, to touch our toes, our body parts become stiff, and we become less flexible.

These little concerns add up and result in significant physical kinks when we age. Walking distances becomes a challenge, our knees hurt when we ascend and descend steps, our neck or another body part is painful.

Become Active to Avoid Physical Declines After Retirement

Unless you are a person who exercises regularly and engages in bodywork to support balance, endurance, and strength you will undoubtedly experience physical challenges as you age. It’s never too early to begin a program to enhance physical strength, balance, and endurance.

How many adults do you meet who look older than their true age? How many adults do you meet who appear to be younger than their actual age? It’s likely the persons who appear younger have taken multiple actions to support good health. If you wish to retire well and remain healthy and active as you age, physical activity, as well as mental activity, is extremely important.

Physical activity stimulates the body and clears the mind. Blood and oxygen circulate through our bodies How many times have you felt drowsy and took a walk that mentally and physically regenerated your body and mind?

It Takes Work to Remain Healthy and Active

The more sedentary we become the greater the risk that we will become physically disabled, mentally and socially isolated. Remaining intellectually engaged supports cognitive function and may delay cognitive decline. Remaining involved in complex projects that engage the brain positively affects cognitive function. Whoever said that work stops when we retire? It takes work to remain healthy and active after we retire.

Data from a Health and Retirement study found that “higher levels of mental demands or self-direction at work were associated with a slower rate of memory decline following retirement.” (1) The study also cites that for work that was not mentally demanding, participating in physical and mental activities after retirement can slow the rate of decline. 

When we slow down, our bodies and minds become less active and less alert. While we still have time on our side, we can positively affect the condition of our body and mind if we choose to act. Speed up and live a healthier and longer life!


1 Andel, Ross et. al. Effects of Preretirement Work Complexity and Postretirement Leisure Activity on Cognitive Aging J. Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci, 2016 Vol 71, No. 5, 849-856. Doi: 10/1083/geronb/ghbv026.

2 Simonsick, Eleanor M. et. al. Fatigued but Not Frail. JAGS 64:1287-1292, 2016.

3 Exercises for Older People.NHS – UK.

©2017, 2019 Pamela D. Wilson. All Rights Reserved.

Pamela D. Wilson, MS, BS/BA, CG, CSA, is a national caregiving thought leader, caregiving expert, advocate, and speaker who solves caregiving problems. Online support and programs are offered to caregivers seeking support and advice for the care of aging parents, spouses, and other family members. Pamela supports adults, age 50+, with positive aging advice and online programs to advance health literacy and self-advocacy. Collaboration with professionals in the specialty areas of estate planning, elder law, and probate, financial planning, and healthcare raises awareness of and sensitivity to stressful family caregiving and healthcare issues.

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