Early retirement may speed up cognitive decline, study warns

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — Even if you love your job, it’s difficult to not fantasize about early retirement. However, new research suggests that your brain health may suffer if you call it quits too soon.

Scientists at Binghamton University examined China’s New Rural Pension Scheme (NRPS) and the Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Survey (CHARLS) to determine how retirement plans affect cognitive performance. CHARLS tests cognition with an emphasis on episodic memory, which involves remembering everyday events, as well as overall mental status.

In developing nations within Asia and Latin America, the average age of the population has increased substantially due to decreased fertility and increased life expectancy. With this growth has come a critical need for more sustainable pension systems. However, Binghamton economist Plamen Nikolov suggests that retirement plans may have unintended consequences. Now, Nikolov and the team says access to retirement plans may be associated with cognitive decline among older adults.

“Because of this large demographic boom, China introduced a formal pension program (called NRPS) in rural parts of the country. The program was introduced because of China’s rapidly rising aging population and in an effort to alleviate poverty in old age,” Nikolov says in a media release. “In rural parts of the country, traditional family-based care for the elderly had largely broken down, without adequate formal mechanisms to take its place. For the elderly, inadequate transfers from either informal family and community transfers could severely reduce their ability to cope with illness or poor nutrition.”

Does lack of activity dull the brain?

To conduct this study, the team obtained administrative data from the Chinese government on implementation of the pension program. They additionally gained access to another survey that provided behavioral and socioeconomic characteristics of participants in the new retirement program. They found that the new program led to considerable levels of adverse cognitive effects. Delayed recall was the most notable indicator of decline, which is currently studied heavily in neurology and is implicated in the onset of dementia. Interestingly, the pension program affected females more negatively. Nikolov suggests that the results support the notion that reducing brain activity leads to a loss of mental skill. The team noted similar findings in areas like social engagement and activities as well.

“Participants in the program report substantially lower levels of social engagement, with significantly lower rates of volunteering and social interaction than non-beneficiaries. We find that increased social isolation is strongly linked with faster cognitive decline among the elderly. Interestingly, we found that the program improved some health behaviors. Program participants reported a reduced incidence of regular alcohol drinking compared to the previous year. Overall, the adverse effects of early retirement on mental and social engagement significantly outweigh the program’s protective effect on various health behaviors,” Nikolov says.

“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.”

Governments should encourage more social engagement

Nikolov and the team were surprised by these findings, but they hope that their work helps prompt policy shifts aimed toward improving cognition in older adults throughout retirement.

“We hope our findings will influence how retirees view their retirement activities from a more holistic perspective and pay particular attention to their social engagement, active volunteering, and participating in activities fostering their mental acuity,” Nikolov concludes.

“But we also hope to influence policymakers. We show robust evidence that retirement has important benefits. 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. Policymakers can introduce policies aimed at buffering the reduction of social engagement and mental activities. In this sense, retirement programs can generate positive spillovers for the health status of retirees without the associated negative effect on their cognition.”

The findings are published in Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan

Shyla Cadogan is a recent graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition and Food Science. She is on her way to becoming a Registered Dietitian, with next steps being completion of a dietetic internship at the University of Maryland Medical Center where she currently is gaining experience with various populations and areas of medical nutrition such as Pediatrics, Oncology, GI surgery, and liver and renal transplant. Shyla also has extensive research experience in food composition analysis and food resource management.

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