The Effects of Early Retirement on Mental Sharpness Might Surprise You
It's all about keeping busy.
Can’t wait to retire? If so, we don’t blame you. You’ve worked hard and earned a more relaxing schedule. But as strange as it may seem, there may be some downsides to retiring early. A recent study suggests that the “use it or lose it” mentality has some validity: Postponing retirement may be good for your cognitive health.
In a paper published in SSM Population Health in September 2021, researchers from Scotland, Germany, and The Netherlands set out to discover the benefits of postponing retirement. Previous studies have shown that continued work past retirement age can protect against memory loss and slower thinking skills. However, it’s been difficult to disentangle the cognitive benefits of later retirement from all other factors that impact a person’s life – until now.
Setting Up the Study
To conduct their study, the team used research from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study. This data helped them estimate the cognitive effect of postponing retirement until age 67. In addition, the investigators wanted to know whether gender, educational level, and type of work (blue collar versus white collar work) would change the results.
The researchers acknowledged that they had to deal with many confounding factors. For instance, a person’s education, income level, job, ethnicity, partner status, and health status all have the potential to skew data. The team also noted that delaying retirement may be good for cognitive function, but bad for mental health.
To deal with all these factors, the team used a statistical formula known as the g-formula. The g-formula allowed them to account for confounding variables and determine whether delayed retirement alone had any benefit on cognitive function.
After conducting several analyses using this formula, the team found that retiring at age 67 correlated with better cognitive function (as compared to retiring between 55 and 66 years of age). In fact, delaying retirement until age 67 had a protective effect on mental sharpness which lasted up to five years post-retirement.
But how did gender, educational level, and type of work affect the results? The team found that men and women experienced about the same cognitive benefit when they delayed retirement. Education did matter to some degree; having even some level of college education was linked to a 50 percent reduction in cognitive decline.
Interestingly, the type of work didn’t make much of a difference. The researchers had also predicted that manual labor and unskilled work (like working as a cashier) had fewer cognitive benefits than non-manual office work. However, all members of the workforce, regardless of occupation, seemed to fare better in terms of mental sharpness when they delayed retirement.
In addition, the team found that their research illuminated disparities. Black and Latinx people, for instance, were more likely to have early life disadvantages. (They did not have the same economic and educational opportunities as white people.) This meant that they were less likely to retire and more likely to be unemployed or disabled at age 67.
Thus, the results of the study don’t apply to every person who retires at age 67 or older. However, they do suggest that there’s a serious benefit to exercising the mind and the body later in life.
If you’re still set to retire as soon as you can, we’re not here to change your plan. But it’s important to think about ways to keep your memory sharp and your body moving. Whether you jump into a new exercise regimen, connect more with your loved ones, or take up other activities to keep your mind limber, there are plenty of ways to fill your life with meaning and take charge of your cognitive health.