After years of scrimping and saving, investing wisely and working diligently your reward could be the luxury of an early retirement – and a big drop in your IQ.
New research conducted by faculty at Binghamton University, State University of New York, finds that early retirement can accelerate cognitive decline among the elderly. The study found that access to retirement plans can play a significant role in reduced mental performance for older people, with the damage showing up about four years into retirement, when the study subjects exhibited a decline in general intelligence by 1.7%.
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Why Retirement Hurts Your Brain
Leaving work was found to hurt the functioning of immediate recall, delayed recall and total word recall for program participants. That’s a very disturbing finding, in that lower performance on delayed recall memory measures is considered to be a highly accurate detector of dementia among older people, with more negative effects among women.
Plus, the longer that retired workers stayed out of the workforce, the worse their cognitive decline can get.
The cause for the mental decline was the reduction in social activities, activities associated with mental fitness, volunteering and social engagement in retirees, the study found.
“Participants in the program report substantially lower levels of social engagement, with significantly lower rates of volunteering and social interaction,” said Plamen Nikolov, assistant professor of economics at Binghamton University. “We find that increased social isolation is strongly linked with faster cognitive decline among the elderly.”
But while the mental abilities of the study participants declined, their overall general health increased once they left work because of reduced stress, improved diet, better sleep and reduced levels of illness or poor nutrition. The study participants also reported less regular alcohol drinking compared with the previous year.
Nonetheless, the study authors concluded that those health benefits may not offset the effects on the brain.
“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,” Nikolov said. “Social engagement and connectedness may simply be the single most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age.”
The study echoes findings from a study published in 2020 by the American Psychological Association that found some middle-aged and older adults, especially women, could be at greater risk of cognitive decline as they age when they disengage from difficult tasks and goals after they retire. An earlier study, from 2017, also reported a decline in essential cognitive functions in nearly 3,500 participants before and after retirement found, with verbal memory dropping 38% faster after retirement than before retirement.
The new results came from a study of participants in China’s New Rural Pension Scheme using data from the Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Survey, a nationally representative survey of people 45 and older within the Chinese population that directly tests cognition, especially memory and mental status.
“Retirement has important benefits,” Nikolov said. “But it also has considerable costs. Cognitive impairments among the elderly, even if not severely debilitating, bring about a loss of quality of life and can have negative welfare consequences.”
The Bottom Line
Pretty much everyone wants to get to retirement, partially so they can stop using their brain power on work. There’s some bad news, though – new research shows that retiring can result in cognitive impairments. That obviously doesn’t mean you shouldn’t retire, but its worth knowing so you can work to keep yourself sharp.
Retirement Planning Tips
A financial advisor can help you make sure you’re ready for retirement. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
The best way to save for retirement is generally to use a workplace retirement plan like a 401(k). Make sure you take advantage if you have one.
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