“A Hidden, Dangerous Side to Retirement”: Research Reveals Potential Slowdown in Brain Function, Increase in Cognitive Decline
Much has been written (and reported here on the AgingOptions blog) about the alluring benefits of retirement – and about some of the pitfalls. Those who retire without a sense of purpose, for example, are at far greater risk of the damaging effects of isolation and depression. But new research, described this article we found on the Pocket website, suggests a darker, more dangerous side to retirement. For some seniors, the loss of mental stimulation and routine that retirement can bring also accelerates cognitive decline.
Could Retirement Actually be Bad for Your Brain?
The article is based on research being conducted by gerontologist Ross Andel, a professor at the University of South Florida. Andel presented an overview of his findings in this 2019 TED Talk called “Is Retirement Bad for Your Brain?” Science writer Cella Wright reported on Andel’s research in the Pocket article which was first published by TED Ideas. “Emerging research suggests that retirement could lead to a decline in your cognitive function,” Wright says. “Anyone who’s retired or thinking about retirement should read this to learn more.”
In her report, Wright sounds a warning. She describes how we idealize retirement as a kind of “never-ending weekend” and an “oasis of freedom and rest we reach after decades of hard work.” Most people assume that the equation for retirement success is simple: “As long as we have good health and sufficient savings, we’ll be OK, right?” But too often the answer is no.
Some Studies Show Twice the Rate of Cognitive Decline Among Retirees
“Some studies,” says Wright, “have linked retirement to poorer health and a decline in cognitive functioning.” For example, this study from the National Institute of Health reported that there’s a high correlation between retirement and a drop in mental sharpness. “Significant associations were found linking longer retirement with more rapid cognitive decline,” said the study.
“Individuals who retired over the course of the [study] were substantially different in terms of health, wealth and cognition when compared to those who remained employed,” NIH reports. The data suggests that cognitive decline takes place twice as fast among some seniors who retire, which in turn leaves people at a greater risk of developing various types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. “Of course, this decline after retirement does not apply to everyone,” says Andel. “But it seems like enough people experience this decline shortly after retiring for us to be concerned.”
Research Project Has Followed a Large Study Group for Two Decades
Andel’s research comes from a large, ongoing, longitudinal study of adults in Australia which has been going on since 2001. “Every four years,” says the Pocket article, “participants answer questions about their health, circumstances and lifestyle and complete a number of tests that gauge memory, speed of thinking, verbal abilities and other cognitive skills.” According to Andel, one of the more striking findings has to do with what scientists call the speed of processing. “The decline in speed of processing [among retirees] – something that’s supposed to be the main indicator of the aging of the brain – was quite pronounced,” says Andel of his findings.
As the article explains, speed of processing refers to how quickly we can make sense of information we’re given. “If people take longer to process information,” says Andel, “they’re more likely to forget it; they’re also more likely to get confused.” Speed of processing requires a healthy network of connections within the brain, and any type of impairment can slow the flow of information, which in turn triggers memory loss, disorientation, and other symptoms.
The Link Between Retirement and Cognitive Decline
“Why might retirement lead to changes in our brain circuitry?” Wright asks. “One possibility raised by Andel: If we’re not using our brains in the same way we did when we were working, ‘a lot of these connections become dormant.’” In other words, “It’s the old ‘use it or lose it’ hypothesis.”
“Something seems to happen around the time of retirement that seems to make people more forgetful,” Andel said in his TED Talk. The problem may arise when the brain lacks any sort of activity that will replace our occupation, such as the activity associated with volunteering. “As [Andel] notes,” says the Pocket article, “people who volunteer appear to experience less cognitive decline than those who don’t.” Andel says he thinks that’s due to two benefits of volunteering: it provides a sense of purpose, and it gives the brain a new routine to follow.
“Routine may sound tiresome, but it could potentially be what we need in retirement,” says Wright. Andel’s suggestion to anyone contemplating retirement is straightforward: “Find a new routine that’s meaningful,” he says.
No Matter What You Do, Avoid the “Retirement Trap”
The bottom line of Andel’s research is that retirees need to think ahead. “People sort of disengage and withdraw, regardless of what their original plans for retirement were,” he said in his TED Talk. “Some have called this ‘mental retirement.’” Instead of investing time and energy into things that are challenging and rewarding, “They sort of drift into a permanent vacation. And as they go on this really long vacation, guess what? They fall into the retirement trap.”
It’s time, he says, to think of retirement differently. “We need to redefine what retirement is and recognize it as this wonderful opportunity to reinvest ourselves into things that really matter to us.” Andel cites research into what are called “the Blue Zones” – those regions of the world in which a disproportionate number of seniors reach age 100 and beyond. One of the common characteristics among Blue Zone inhabitants, Andel observes, is that “these people all have purpose.” Purpose, he adds, is about “investing yourself into something that has meaning. It might not have meaning to others but maybe it has meaning to you.”
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(originally reported at https://getpocket.com)