Personal Health

Work: The Key to Anti-Aging?

Relaxation is important, but retirement may well be overrated.

On the table where my 91-year-old uncle puts his pipe there is a coaster that carries the legend, "Just as I got my head together, my body fell apart".

It is always there, a wry comment on his condition, and it never fails to raise a chuckle from visitors to the house. Although his mind is still pin-sharp, his body started on its slow, remorseless decline a decade ago when he was diagnosed with cerebellar ataxia, a neurological condition that has gradually robbed him of the use of his legs and left him with shaky hands. His signature, in a jagged script, looks as if powered by lightning.

He is a gentle, reflective man who, in his 10th decade, is enjoying his greatest success as an artist. His paintings are selling better now than at any time in his career (the Tate is among his recent buyers). And despite his physical disability, he remains youthful, engaged and active, thanks to an anti-ageing treatment that he has taken for most of his long life.

It is one that his sister, 97 next month, takes too. She lives in Washington, DC, and was on the phone to him at the weekend discussing which of them would make the next Atlantic crossing so that they could meet.

The treatment is called work. After a substantial breakfast of cereal, my uncle takes the chairlift to the top-floor studio of his London house where, with the help of his assistant, he continues to produce new art works in the most vibrant colours he has ever used. He has done this every day, summer and winter, often working into the small hours, for as long as I can remember. His sister, my aunt, is working on her second book – her first was published when she was 93.

Yesterday, a study appeared in the medical journal 'The Lancet' showing that the number of years of healthy active life enjoyed by people after the age of 50 varies widely across Europe, with the highest rates in Denmark and the lowest in Estonia. Here in the United Kingdom, where life expectancy is almost 80, it is just short of 20 years for men, and slightly more for women, implying that the last decade of our lives is, for the majority of us, a period of steady dissolution.

In some EU countries, the poor health of the population is reducing the employability of older workers, making it difficult for those countries to achieve the EU target to have half of those aged 55-64 in work by 2010, the researchers say.

But the reverse is also true. It is well known, thanks to the extensive studies done during the record unemployment levels of the 1980s, that a lack of work damages the health. What may be less appreciated is how work actually enhances health. Don't stop (if you have the choice). Retirement is overrated.