If You Rest, You Rust? Study Finds Early Retirement May Speed Up Cognitive Decline

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — It’s hard to think of an early retirement as anything other than a positive. Who wouldn’t want to trade in their suit and tie for a pair of beach shorts? While retiring ahead of schedule may be easier on the body, a new set of research has found that it may not be so beneficial for the mind.

The study, conducted at Binghamton University, finds that an early retirement can accelerate the usual rate of cognitive decline among the elderly.

The research team analyzed China’s new rural pension scheme (NRPS), as well as China’s most recent Retirement Longitudinal Survey (CHARLS), in order to investigate the effects of early retirement and pension benefits on individual cognition among adults over the age of 60. For reference, CHARLS is a representative national survey of China’s population over the age of 45 that tests respondents regarding mental cognition, episodic memory, and overall mental wellbeing.

Life expectancy rates in China have steadily increased over the past few decades, coinciding with a decline in fertility. These two trends have resulted in a large elderly population in the Asian nation, subsequently creating an urgent need for more robust pension programs.

After going over all of the data, the research team noted a clear trend: individuals receiving pension benefits were experiencing much more rapid mental decline than their counterparts still on the workforce. The most prominent indicator of mental decline among retirees was delayed recall, a trait widely considered to be an accurate predictor of dementia. Surprisingly, females seemed to experience even sharper mental decline after retiring early. Overall, the results support the hypothesis that decreased mental activity accelerates cognitive decline.

“Individuals in the areas that implement the NRPS score considerably lower than individuals who live in areas that do not offer the NRPS program,” says study author and assistant professor economics Plamen Nikolov in a release. “Over the almost 10 years since its implementation, the program led to a decline in cognitive performance by as high as almost a fifth of a standard deviation on the memory measures we examine.”

This study’s findings were similar to previous research that had focused on the impact of retirement on elderly individuals living in the United States, England, and the European Union. So, this is hardly a trend limited to Asia.

Nikolov had actually conducted previous studies that found retirement led to a number of positive physical health benefits for retirees, such as improved sleep patterns, less stress, and reduced alcohol consumption. However, retirement is also usually accompanied with a decline in social activities and less overall interaction with people, which has also been linked to cognitive decline.

“For cognition among the elderly, it looks like the negative effect on social engagement far outweighed the positive effect of the program on nutrition and sleep,” Nikolov theorizes. “Or alternatively, the kinds of things that matter and determine better health might simply be very different than the kinds of things that matter for better cognition among the elderly. Social engagement and connectedness may simply be the single most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age.”

The research team are hopeful that their findings will be considered by older adults when mulling retirement, but perhaps more importantly, they hope that policy makers in developing countries take note while drawing up new pension plans. They recommend instituting social get-togethers and work shops for recent retirees to help lessen the predicted decline in social interaction and critical thinking that often comes along with retirement.

The study is published in the scientific journal IZA Institute of Labor Economics.