Could retiring early cause you to lose your mind? Researchers at Binghamton University, in New York, believe so.

They found that early retirement could accelerate the usual rate of cognitive decline among the elderly in developing countries, including Asia and Latin America. Their results mirrored those that had focused on the impact of retirement on elderly individuals living in the United States, England, and the European Union. 

Analyzing China’s new rural pension scheme (NRPS)—as well as China’s most recent Retirement Longitudinal Survey (CHARLS)—researchers in the most recent study investigated the effects of early retirement and pension benefits on individual cognition among adults over the age of 60. 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 well-being.

With a higher life expectancy and decline in fertility in developing countries in Asia and Latin America, the elderly populations there have become the largest demographic group, generating an urgent need for new, sustainable pension systems, according to the study. However, research suggests that these plans could be detrimental as retirement plays a significant role in explaining cognitive decline at older ages.

One important conclusion the research team came to was that after scouring the data, they noted a clear trend: individuals receiving pension benefits were experiencing much more rapid mental decline than their counterparts still in 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.

 

5 Key Takeaways

  1. The study wasn’t limited to China and Latin America.
  2. Findings were applicable to the United States, England, and the European Union, as well.
  3. Females seemed to experience even sharper mental decline after retiring early than males.
  4. Social engagement and connectedness may be the most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age.
  5. The hope is that policy makers in developing countries take note while drawing up new pension plans.

Surprisingly, in the most recent study though, females seemed to experience even sharper mental decline after retiring early. Overall, the results support the hypothesis that decreased mental activity accelerates cognitive decline.

Of Note . . .

The 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.

Surprisingly, in the most recent study, females seemed to experience even sharper mental decline after retiring early. Overall, the results support the hypothesis that decreased mental activity accelerates cognitive decline in women for sure, but also in men.

In China, life expectancy rates have steadily increased during 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.

“It’s hard to think of an early retirement as anything other than a positive,” said Binghamton University researchers. “Who wouldn’t want to trade in their suit and tie for a pair of beach shorts?”

Individuals in the areas that implement the NRPS score might want to reconsider retiring early—that’s who should consider early retirement, because they have considerably lower scores than individuals who live in areas that do not offer the NRPS program, said the study’s author and assistant professor of economics, Plamen Nikolov. “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,” he reported.

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 said. “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.”

Researchers 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 workshops for recent retirees to help lessen the predicted decline in social interaction and critical thinking that often comes along with retirement.

If you’re looking for help with keeping your mind sharp, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.

Reference

Nikolov, P. & Adelman, A. “Pension Benefits Accelerate Cognitive Decline? Evidence from Rural China.” August 2019. Retrieved from https://www.iza.org/en/publications/dp/12524/do-pension-benefits-accelerate-cognitive-decline-evidence-from-rural-china

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