Brain Health

Does Early Retirement Help Your Brain?

Does Early Retirement Help Your Brain? about undefined
For some, retirement is like jumping off a cliff, with structureless days and a loss of identity that fills them with a sense of dread. But for others, retirement can’t come quickly enough. They take the first opportunity to exit the workforce early and begin a life of leisure. Very few consider the question, what is the impact of early retirement on the brain? A new study has the answer. And it will have you thinking about retirement in a whole new light… A new study found early retirement may be good for the body, but it’s not good for the brain. It can accelerate cognitive decline, and it’s not the first research to uncover this disappointing news. A study published in 2010 looked at a substantial amount of data from the United States and eleven European countries. The investigators concluded that: “Early retirement has a significant negative impact on the cognitive ability of people in their early 60s that is both quantitatively important and causal.” The word “causal” should be noted. This word is rarely found in human population studies. Ordinarily, the language “strongly associated with” is about as direct as it gets. A few years later, another study also documented considerable harmful effects on cognitive performance with early retirement. Now, for the latest research…

Early Retirement Can Mean Cognitive Decline

The latest study was conducted by social scientists at Binghamton University, New York. They were interested in whether the harmful effects on cognitive function demonstrated in folks who retired early in Western countries also applied to a rural Chinese population. The researchers used survey data from a high quality nationally representative sample of over 17,500 individuals aged 45 and over in rural China. From this data set they were able to determine changes in cognition over time by analyzing a variety of memory tasks given to the participants. Then, they applied the data to those who were also beneficiaries of the National Rural Pension Scheme (program), introduced in 2009, and compared the findings to those not in the program. At first, the news was very good…

Better Sleep And Lifestyle Behaviors Improved Brain Health

When the New York team analyzed the early results of data among this cohort they found that pension benefits and retirement led to positive health changes overall via improvements in sleep and the reduction of alcohol consumption and smoking. Since these factors can negatively impact brain health, the researchers expected early retirement would be good for memory and cognition. But their hopes were soon dashed.

A Steep Fall In Cognitive Performance

As the researchers wrote in their paper, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization in January, “the provision of pension benefits negatively impacts immediate recall, delayed recall, and total word recall for program participants. This finding is significant, as lower performance on delayed recall memory measures has been a highly accurate detector of dementia among senior individuals.” There was a five percent drop in the average total word recall score, which is equivalent to a decline in general intelligence of 1.7 percent. The decline began about four years after the onset of program benefits. Joint author Plamen Nikolov explained, saying, “We were surprised to find that pension benefits and retirement actually resulted in reduced cognitive performance. “The fact that retirement led to reduced cognitive performance in and of itself is a stark finding about an unsuspected, puzzling issue, but a finding with extremely important welfare implications for one’s quality of life in old age.” Why did this happen?

Lower Levels Of Social Engagement Damage Brain

Dr. Nikolov believes any brain benefits from better health behaviors, as suggested in the earlier set of results, were outweighed by other factors. “Participants in the program report substantially lower levels of social engagement, with significantly lower rates of volunteering and social interaction than non-beneficiaries. We find that increased social isolation is strongly linked with faster cognitive decline among the elderly. “Social engagement and connectedness may simply be the single most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age.” That’s a remarkable statement and bears repeating: “Social engagement and connectedness may be the single most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age.” While distressing, this is news we can all certainly use to stay on top of our mental game in retirement, so our golden years are just that, golden.

Keep Using The Brain And Stay Connected

The findings confirm what we’ve been saying for years: Stay socially engaged as you get older whether you’re working or not. Isolation might be the very worst, or at least one of the worst, things you can do for your memory. While early retirement can play a significant role in explaining cognitive decline at older ages, it doesn’t mean early retirement itself is a problem, even if it was unplanned, a situation millions of people found themselves in during the COVID-19 pandemic. What this research does show is that once your brain power is no longer put to use for work, it needs to be redirected to other activities to compensate. In other words, use it or lose it.

How To Stay Engaged

We’ve reported through the years on many ways to stay mentally and socially engaged no matter what your age. These activities range from reading—make it social and join a book club-- to solving crossword puzzles and engaging in computer games, to learning a new language or playing a musical instrument. There are also scores of hobbies to engage in whether you’re interested in art classes or gardening, or maybe you prefer athletic pursuits such as golfing, tennis or pickleball. And don’t forget fitness classes like yoga. There are also many social opportunities at clubs, senior centers, health centers, churches or synagogues, even social groups in your own neighborhood. An active social life has been shown repeatedly to reduce the risk of dementia, so it’s important to address this issue by meeting with friends and family members daily or engaging in volunteer opportunities to expand your social circle. If you can’t meet in person, take advantage of virtual meetings—they’re certainly better than having no social engagement at all. Best Regards, The Awakening From Alzheimer’s Team accelerate-cognitive-decline  

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