QUESTION: Is it true that our cognitive powers take a sharp drop right after we retire from the work force?
ANSWER: Although there is a relationship between retirement and cognitive skills, there is no evidence of an immediate or precipitous decline right after retirement, and there is plenty of reason to believe that being pro-active can minimize any potential negative effects.
For some time now, scientists have known that there is a relationship between retirement and cognitive skills such as speed of thinking, spatial reasoning and memory. Studies that involve large groups of individuals have shown that people who are retired tend to perform lower on tests measuring various cognitive skills than non-retired people of the same age. In a similar vein, a recent study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives showed that earlier retirement ages are associated with lower cognitive scores when compared across several countries, including the United States, England and other European countries.
These findings are not surprising when you consider the broader effect of lifestyle on brain health and cognition. We know there are a number of benefits to participating in activities that are intellectually challenging, such as taking courses, learning a second language or playing a musical instrument. The important ingredient in these activities is that they require you to solve problems, learn new things and think in novel ways. Individuals who engage in a number and variety of these types of activities tend to maintain better cognitive abilities as they age and even have a lower risk of developing age-related cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer's disease. Work can provide similar benefits. Some jobs involve complex activities such as problem solving, analyzing, negotiating and mentoring, and individuals employed in these jobs tend to show stability or even improvement in cognitive skills as they age.
So it doesn't come as a surprise that after retirement we no longer reap the benefits of the intellectual engagement that work provides. Indeed, research shows that cognitive decline is seen among individuals who retire from jobs with a high level of complexity, that is, individuals who are transitioning from demanding work environments to the more relaxed pace of retired life. In contrast, there is less change for individuals retiring from jobs with a low level of complexity and, as you might expect, there is less evidence of cognitive decline among these individuals.
The good news is that we have ample control over the amount and level of intellectual engagement that we experience in our lives, particularly after retirement. It is important to plan for how you will replace the cognitive challenges that were associated with your job once you are retired. This can be done, for example, through taking up volunteer positions or leisure activities that provide you with new experiences and opportunities to learn. Toronto's Baycrest Centre is currently leading a research study with retired baby boomers (aged 55-plus) to scientifically measure if specific volunteering activities can improve cognitive functions, such as memory and attention. That study is still recruiting healthy retirees in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area who are not active in volunteering but want to give it a try.
Retiring from paid work should not mean retiring your brain. Keeping your brain active can have positive benefits to your cognition and health as you age.
Angela Troyer is a clinical neuropsychologist and director of psychology at Baycrest in Toronto. She runs the memory and aging program, a five-week education and discussion series for older adults in the community.