A recent study suggests that older adults might benefit from delaying retirement for a few years if they want to maintain their mental sharpness. Researchers estimated their collective cognitive health would improve if all those older Americans waited until age 67 to retire, based on data on over 20,000 older Americans.
In addition to thinking and reasoning, planning and remembering are other critical brain functions that can be referred to as cognition. The amount of education or exercise a person gets during their lifetime can affect cognitive decline, and dementia risk, later in life. Researchers wanted to find out how retirement at a later age affects cognitive function.
If This Is Postponed, Dementia May Be Avoided
Jo Mhairi Hale, a researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, explained that spending more years on the job could be protective. Hale explained that people who continue working are ‘forced,’ if you will, to remain cognitively engaged, while retirees may elect to engage in such activities, but not necessarily.
The team analyzed data from more than 20,000 American participants in the Health and Retirement Study, a long-running study on health and aging. There were standard questions that assessed memory and other cognitive abilities. About 45% of respondents are retired, while many still work part-time.
Based on statistics, the researchers estimated what could happen if all of the study participants delayed retirement until age 67. As in real life, age and cognitive health are determined by a whole host of factors. As people age, their mental acuity declines.
In her study, Hale said her team examined a variety of life-course issues, so that complexity was partially alleviated. Investigators assessed factors including children’s educational levels, depression symptoms, current wealth, childhood family income, diabetes, and the longest-held job type (e.g. manual labor).
As a result, the researchers found that postponing retirement until age 67 or older might help people maintain some mental sharpness. Researchers estimated that delaying retirement by one-third would reduce cognitive loss between the ages of 61 and 67, as the group lost an average of 1 point. As well as the benefits persisting for at least five years after retirement, the team examined potential benefits.
Those extra years of work did not offer extra brainpower. The researchers said an early retirement may lead to a steeper decline in cognitive functioning. Can older adults still work to keep their brains healthy? Claire Sexton, director of scientific program and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association, says the study does not answer this question.
The study was not conducted by Sexton, who did not participate in the study. Many factors play into people’s decision to retire, she pointed out, including their enjoyment of their job and whether it is stimulating or physically difficult. Dementia risk can vary from genes to health conditions, like diabetes and high blood pressure, to obesity and lack of exercise, Sexton explained.
Given those caveats, Sexton conceded that people might benefit from staying on the job if it provides them with mental stimulation and social interaction. These things may protect the brain as it ages, based on research. Staying mentally and socially engaged is not limited to work.
During retirement, Sexton advises, taking classes, starting an exercise regimen, or joining a club or volunteering are all possible. The expert agreed that retirees were well-served by regular participation in intellectually engaging activities.
Researchers will explore whether engagement in cognitive activities such as volunteering and grandparenting is protective against cognitive decline as the next step in their research, she said. An online version of the findings of the study was published recently in SSM Population Health.