It’s a long slow mental decline after you stop working, new study says

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It’s good to keep busy – better than you know. New research finds that early retirement can speed up cognitive decline, according to a study conducted by faculty at SUNY Binghamton University.

The answers came from China, where life expectancy has increased over the last several decades. Combine that with another trend, a decline in fertility, and the result is a large elderly population and a new need for stronger pension programs.

Plamen Nikolov, assistant professor of economics, and Alan Adelman, a doctoral student in economics, examined data from China’s formal pension program, the New Rural Pension Scheme (NRPS) and Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Survey to figure out the cognitive effects on receiving a pension for those 60 and older.

What they found was that people receiving pension benefits were undergoing more rapid cognitive decline than their counterparts that were still working.

“Because of this large demographic boom, China introduced a formal pension program (called NRPS) in rural parts of the country. The program was introduced on the basis of an economy’s needs and capacity, in particular, to alleviate poverty in old age,” said Nikolov in a 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.”

Decreased mental activity, the researchers concluded, must, therefore, lead to increased mental decline. The most salient indicator of mental decline among retirees was delayed recall (meaning having a hard time remembering or grasping words) – a trait that is considered to be a predictor of dementia.

Females showed a sharper decrease in cognitive decline after retiring early.

The study’s findings had precedent – its results were similar to previous research that focused on the effect of retirement on elderly people living in the United States, England, and the European Union.

“For cognition among the elderly, it looks like the negative effect on social engagement far outweighed the positive effect of the program on nutrition and sleep,” Nikolov said. “Or alternatively, the kinds of things that matter and determine better health might simply be very different than 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.”

Nikolov said he hopes the research will encourage new policies to improve the cognitive functioning of older people during retirement.

“We hope our findings will influence retirees themselves, but perhaps, more importantly, it will influence policymakers in developing countries,” he said.

The study was published in the journal IZA Institute of Labor Economics.