Retirement Causes Decline in Brain Function, Study Finds

By | January 24th, 2018

New research shows that retirement is associated with declines in verbal memory.

You’ve probably heard the term “use it or lose it” to describe a common school of thought when it comes to brain aging. The idea is that if you don’t regularly exercise your brain with social interactions and challenges, you lose thinking capability. A new study on how the brain handles the dip in stimulation during retirement from researchers at University College London and Kings College London found that to hold true.

Without a regular job to provide stimulation, the use-it-or-lose-it hypothesis follows the idea that a  lack of activity could “accelerate cognitive decline or even the onset of dementia,” according to study authors. “Accordingly, retirement may be a potential trigger for cognitive decline, assuming that retirees leave paid work that is cognitively demanding.”

The large British study showed that short-term memory declined almost 40 percent faster when employees transitioned to retirees, even when they controlled for normal age-related decline. The study tracked over 3,400 civil servants who were part of a long-term health research project. They gave the participants memory tests for up to 28 years, from 14 years before retirement to 14 years after retirement. These tests measured verbal memory, word recall, reasoning and verbal fluency.

The verbal memory test showed participants a list of 20 one- or two-syllable words at two-second intervals and then asked them to recall in writing as many words as they could over two minutes. Even taking age-related cognitive decline into their calculations, they still found that retirement was associated with a 38 percent dip in verbal memory.

“This study highlights the benefits of stimulating work activities that benefit older people’s memory,” the researchers wrote.

Participants who held higher ranking jobs did better on the verbal memory tests while they were employed, but that protective effect dropped off once they entered retirement.

“Accelerated deterioration or impairment in one or more cognitive functions beyond the ‘normal’ age-related decline could be predictive of the onset of dementia,” wrote the study authors.

This study was published in European Journal of Epidemiology.

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