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Retiring Early Can Be Unhealthy For the Mind

Von Plamen Nikolov, Binghamton University, New York State University

The Research Brief is a brief presentation of interesting academic work.

The big idea

According to a new economic study I conducted with my PhD student Alan Adelman, people who retire early suffer from accelerated cognitive decline and may even have early dementia.

To establish this finding, we examined the impact of a 2009 rural retirement program in China that provided people who participated with stable incomes after they stopped working after the official retirement age of 60. We found that people who participated in the program and retired had a cognitive decline within a year or two, representing a 1.7% decline in general intelligence compared to the general population. This drop is roughly equivalent to three IQ points and could make it harder for someone to keep a medication plan or do financial planning. The biggest negative effect was what is known as “delayed recall,” which measures a person’s ability to remember something that was mentioned a few minutes ago. Neurological research links problems in this area with early onset of dementia.

Why it matters

Cognitive decline refers to cases when a person has trouble remembering, learning new things, focusing, or making decisions that affect their everyday life. While some cognitive decline seems to be an inevitable by-product of aging, a faster decline can have profoundly detrimental consequences in your life.

Understanding the causes has major financial consequences. Cognitive skills – the mental processes of collecting and processing information to solve problems, adapt to situations, and learn from experience – are critical to decision-making. They affect a person’s ability to process information and are associated with higher income and a better quality of life.

Retiring early and working less or not at all can have great benefits, such as: B. less stress, better nutrition and more sleep. But, as we have found, it also has unintended adverse effects, such as less social activity and less time spent in challenging the mind, which far outweighed the positive.

While retirement schemes such as the 401 (k) and similar programs in other countries are typically implemented to ensure the well-being of aging adults, our research suggests that they must be carefully designed to avoid unintended and significant adverse consequences. When people retire, they should weigh the benefits against the significant disadvantages of a sudden lack of mental activity. A great way to enhance these effects is to keep engaging socially and using your brain the way you did at work.

In short, we show that when you rest, you rust.

Which is not yet known

Because we are using data and a program in China, the mechanisms by which retirement leads to cognitive decline may be context specific and may not necessarily apply to people in other countries. For example, cultural differences or other measures that can support people in old age can cushion some of the negative effects we see in rural China due to increasing social isolation and decreased intellectual activity.

Therefore we cannot definitely say that the results will be carried over to other countries. We look for data from retirement programs in other countries, such as India, to see if the effects are similar or different.

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