Is this your brain on retirement?
by Catey Hill
For all the benefits of retirement – less stress, fewer obligations, finally the time and money to travel the world – new research paints a somewhat bleaker picture. Without careful attention and some preventative steps, retirement, it turns out, may take quite the toll on our faculties.
As the baby boom has grown older, more researchers – and research funding – have focused on all aspects of aging. Recently, a growing number of studies have all pointed out the ill effects of not just aging, but retirement. The earlier people retire, the sooner they’re likely to get Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study of 382 men published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychology in 2010. Another recent study showed that “retirement was negatively associated with cognitive test scores over time,” implying that retirees may have more difficulty solving problems and understanding complex issues, according to Beverley Roberts, a professor of cognitive epidemiology and aging at University College in London and co-author of “Does retirement influence cognitive performance?”
It would be easy to pooh-pooh these findings – after all, people who are slowing down are obvious candidates for retirement, right? But according to some researchers, it’s not that easy. Retirement itself drives lowered cognition, says Dr. Susann Rohwedder, who co-authored a 2009 study entitled “Mental Retirement.” In it, she conducted a series of tests on retirees from around the world and found that they had a significantly harder time recalling a list of words than non-retirees. Recall, she notes, is an “important measure of fluid intelligence,” one that relates to brain speed and abstract reasoning. The culprit, according to her study? Retirement. “It’s a causal effect,” she says.
There are almost as many hypotheses about why this happens as there are aspiring retirees. The most popular is probably the so-called “use it or lose it” hypothesis, the idea that a person can prevent the effects of normal brain decline “by engaging in cognitively demanding activities that exercise the mind,” says Rohwedder. In effect: if you’re using your brain effectively, like you would at work, you stay mentally fit. But retirement may not be as mentally demanding as full-time employment, which can mean that essential processes like time management, organization skills and the ability to accomplish a task in a given time are affected, says Rohwedder. In effect: if the brain isn’t fully used, you begin to lose mental acuity. “With retirement, depending on what someone does, many of these skills can atrophy,” says Dr. Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist and author of “How We Age.” “And that has a cascade effect on other higher-order brain skills.”
Whatever the cause, you don’t have to be a trivia champion to feel threatened by the implications — personal and financial – of the findings. Even slight impairment can sap the interest to manage finances, the ability to critically evaluate an adviser or doctor’s advice, or the motivation or ability to return to work, even part-time, to protect a shrinking nest egg. “Good employers may look at the whole package and see if there’s a way to coach employees through this … but that’s certainly not always the case,” says Dan Ryan, an executive search consultant and panelist for the Society of Human Resource Management and a principal at staffing firm Ryan Search & Consulting.
If this is starting to sound like a choice between the lesser of two evils – working forever to keep the mind sharp versus relaxing into the brain fog of retirement – it doesn’t have to. Yes, working, even part-time, may help forestall decline, says Roberts. (The additional income doesn’t hurt in retirement, either.) But so can mentally stimulating hobbies, like bridge, learning a new language, or tutoring, which can help keep problem-solving, verbal and analytical skills tuned, Agronin says. Regular physical activity and frequent social interactions also help. “There’s no need to fear retirement,” he says. “Just try to keep physically and mentally active.”