The unexpected cost of early retirement: My loss

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published May 19, 2023

Key Takeaways

I strove for early retirement throughout my medical career. I had drunk the proverbial Kool-aid: Having the time, freedom, and flexibility to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, was my dream goal. 

I worked so hard for over 20 years taking care of my patients, providing for my family, and making sure I would have enough money to retire, that I thought spending more time with friends and family, traveling the world, reading books for pleasure, going to the gym, and watching movies would feel like eternal happiness and freedom. 

A lonely life of leisure

I thought that these activities, with a couple of medical lectures and per-diem medical consulting sprinkled in, would be the perfect recipe for a mentally stimulating life of leisure.

I didn’t realize the white space in my calendar would mean empty months with plenty of free time to panic. 

I didn’t have structure. I no longer felt that I could reward myself for working hard during the week. I missed interacting with patients. And, although I was relieved of the significant stress that comes with bedside medicine, I was lonely. My decision to retire early came at a cost. 

I didn’t realize that my self-esteem and innate happiness were deeply rooted in caring for patients and being productive daily.

The effect of loneliness on longevity

Numerous studies—from a recent New England Journal of Medicine perspective on social isolation to a massive prospective study of the Harvard College class of 1938—identify loneliness as a negative determinant of longevity.[][] The ability to stay engaged certainly challenges many retired physicians. 

"Although we often see retirement as the end goal of our careers, many of us may not realize retirement can come with too much free time, loneliness, anxiety, and emptiness."

Kristen Fuller, MD

The effects on physical health

For many, retirement can mean a lot of free time at home, which can turn into a sedentary lifestyle. Periods of inactivity and immobility can have health consequences. 

The British Psychology Society published a paper[] about how retirement affects your physical health, noting a prospective study from the Harvard School of Public Health that found retirees (after adjusting for a wide range of factors such as age and comorbidities) were 40% more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than those who were still working.

Regardless of whether or not a person has health conditions before they retire, it is important to prioritize physical health during your retirement. 

This means adopting a healthy diet and exercise regimen while limiting alcohol and tobacco, and following up with your physician for regular health screenings. 

The effects on mental health

"Retiring from medicine may throw you into a dark place emotionally. You may feel depressed, lonely, and anxious."

Kristen Fuller, MD

These feelings may come as a shock and may seem complicated, especially because our society tells us that retirement is supposed to be peaceful and fun. Therefore, consider your mental and emotional health before deciding to retire.

Do you have a history of mental illness? How do you deal with stress? It may even be worth meeting with a therapist or a life coach before you transition into retirement, as they can help address any underlying fears or feelings that may arise.

Offset negative effects with part-time work

Our society often sees things in black and white, and retirement is no different. We often either work full-time or are retired. Going from a busy patient schedule to not seeing any patients at all can completely shock our mental, social, emotional, and physical systems. 

What if we eased into retirement by seeing fewer patients over time? What if we worked part-time or picked up per-diem contracts?

Consider also looking into other medical avenues, such as academics or medical consulting. 

Make sure your identity isn’t tied to your profession

We went through more than a decade of school and training, taking on an insurmountable amount of medical student debt to become a physician. Of course, we take pride in what we do. 

For many physicians, being a physician is the bread and butter of who we are, and transitioning into retirement can strip this identity from us.

This can potentially lead to us feeling unneeded, unwanted, and alone. It may be necessary to examine this identity crisis before retirement. 

Explore your passions

Whether volunteering at a school or an animal shelter, organizing a free medical clinic, teaching at a local college, or giving time to your community or church, finding ways to give back to society can help you transition into retirement. 

"As physicians, we are empaths and dedicate our time to individuals in need, and when we stop caring for our patients, we may feel that we have no other purpose in life."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Consider what else you are passionate about, and how this passion can potentially benefit other individuals. 

Assemble a social support team

We may not realize it during practice, but seeing patients is an integral part of our social life, even if our patients are not necessarily part of our social support system or in our personal lives. Transitioning into retirement can leave us lacking these social connections. 

As a result, we must explore our social support systems and find healthy ways to enhance our social lives. Although we may live with family members, it is also essential to maintain friendships outside of the home to help combat any feelings of loneliness. 

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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