Health & Wellbeing

Unique real-world data shows early retirement hastens cognitive decline

Unique real-world data shows early retirement hastens cognitive decline
New research has found a number of health benefits from early retirement but decreased social engagements were linked to cognitive decline
New research has found a number of health benefits from early retirement but decreased social engagements were linked to cognitive decline
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New research has found a number of health benefits from early retirement but decreased social engagements were linked to cognitive decline
New research has found a number of health benefits from early retirement but decreased social engagements were linked to cognitive decline

New research from economists at Binghamton University shows early retirement can be linked to an acceleration of age-related cognitive decline. Looking at data from a unique pension program in China, the findings suggest increased social activity may mitigate the cognitive costs of early retirement.

The novel research focused on government heath data from a pension program introduced in China in 2009. Because of rising poverty amongst the elderly in certain rural parts of the country, the program offered people a stable income if they retired within a few years of turning 60.

With a decade of data to study, the researchers were able to compare the health and cognitive consequences of those taking up the early retirement plan with a matched group of people still working through their 60s. The results revealed those participating in the early retirement program showed a worsening of cognitive skills over the subsequent years compared to non-retirees.

However, the more puzzling finding was that while the pension plan participants showed declines in cognition, they also saw improvements in general health. Those early retirees tended to reduce alcohol consumption, quit smoking and generally sleep better. According to Plamen Nikolov, one of the lead researchers on the project, this interesting discordancy between general and cognitive health suggests certain dimensions of retirement seem to specifically negatively influence the brain.

"Overall, the adverse effects of early retirement on mental and social engagement significantly outweigh the program’s protective effect on various health behaviors,” added Nikolov. “Or alternatively, the kinds of things that matter and determine better health might simply be very different from 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.”

Social isolation seemed to be the key factor linked with faster cognitive decline among the pension plan participants in the study. Nikolov said those early retirees in the program reported lower levels of general social interaction and engagement compared to age-matched non-retirees. So this suggests certain policies could be implemented to mitigate the cognitive harms of early retirement and maintain the more general health benefits.

"Policymakers can introduce policies aimed at buffering the reduction of social engagement and mental activities," said Nikolov. "In this sense, retirement programs can generate positive spillovers for the health status of retirees without the associated negative effect on their cognition.”

The research is not the first to highlight the importance of maintaining active social engagements in later life as a way of maintaining cognitive health. A similar 2021 study in European retirees found cognitive benefits from prolonging one's time in the workforce.

But again, as with Nikolov's findings, the solution is not that we all should simply work through into older ages. Instead, early retirement can be broadly beneficial as long as social and physical activities are maintained.

The new study was published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

Source: Binghamton University

I worry about the Chicken or Egg argument with this study.
Did people retire early because they were already in decline?
So the brain is like a muscle. Use it or lose it.
Almost four years ago, I was forced to retire early due to difficulties on the job caused by memory loss and mild cognitive issues. I wasn't diagnosed with Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia at the time. And while my memory loss and cognitive problems have not improved, they haven't worsened. At least not yet. So perhaps the finding that early retirement could cause decline may be artifactual - that is, something else occurred in the study to generate the finding.

Longer-term studies are needed; we can't really say cognitive decline is caused by early retirement without further evidence.
I have worked harder in retirement than before so worked that brain to the ground. Doubt that applies to me even though I will probably get Dementia someday (runs in the family).

Point 1:
For meself, I 'retired' at 62 from my professional following, some 10 years ago, it being as early as I could.
I haven't met any since who have done same and regretted it, or, if not yet at their personal position particular yet to retire, are not looking forward to it
(last encountered x3 weeks ago - medical doctor).
Point 2:
I thoroughly concur with Vince above.
I've never stopped working since severing from the rat-race -
Following-up on my own dream-schemes long residing in the back of me brain cell,
happily accepting the crumbs of pension from HMG
and generally scrapping a living without being useful!
Non, je ne regrette rien
I just wish it could have been earlier.
Maybe those happy younger retirees are just living longer to reach cognitive decline.
I retired at 46, now I'm 52. I travel the world and live in my van most of the time. Hopefully I don't get dementia like my mother did, but live well into my 80's like my father did. Time will tell...
The study is behind a paywall and this article makes no mention of the degree of cognition decline. The European study mentions conflicting results from other studies, and the fact that there are a huge number of variables involved. So I can't really draw any conclusions here other than perhaps the obvious one: If you isolate yourself and watch TV all day in retirement, you will probably have cognitive decline.

On a related note, a palliative care nurse in Australia recorded the regrets of her patients over many years and a top regret was, "I wish I hadn't worked so hard." Other studies have since confirmed this common regret amongst the elderly. I won't go into it here but the other common regrets are also very interesting. Look up, "The Top Five Regrets of the Dying."
If you are one of those people who'se job IS their life then retiring is an invitation to decline. I was warned that I would be killing myself by retiring before I turned 50. I'm 75 now and doing just fine, thank you. Retire and live your life but make sure that you actually know what life IS before you do it.
Applying Chinese population experience to Western societies seems folly. When do they normally retire? In Chinese families, parents often live with family - did sudden retirement create family stresses that would not otherwise exist? Was this a program for agricultural regions?

Furthermore, the premise - suddenly strongly encouraging folks to retire when they hadn’t planned to do so would seem to warp the data. Most folks plan for many years for retirement, whatever it looks like.

It has long been known - the “success” of your retirement depends on a lot more than simply money. If you do not have outside (of job) interests, your mental health will decline. I’ve been retired for many years and never had a boring day in retirement. Not once.
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