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Keep working? Research suggests retirement kills brain cells

Retirement can be deadly to cognitive function, says Mark Friedman in the Wall Street Journal, pointing to research that says a sense of purpose and engagement with the world is crucial to preventing cognitive deterioration in later years.

Friedman refers to French research that “studied 429,000 previously self-employed retirees in that country show(s) a 3.2 percent reduction in the risk of a dementia diagnosis for every additional year these individuals worked before retiring. The individuals who worked to 65 had a 14.6 percent lower chance of dementia than those retiring at age 60.”

The French study is summarized by Richard Eisenberg at Next Avenue: “The French analysis echoes a 2009 study of 382 British male dementia patients by Cardiff University and the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. Those researchers found that every extra year that men worked beyond age 65 postponed the onset of their dementia symptoms by nearly six weeks.”

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal interviewed Dr. Patricia A. Boyle at the Chicago-based Rush University Medical Center's Alzheimer's Disease Center. According to Boyle: “Our study showed that having purpose in life is robustly protective. Those who reported having purpose in life showed a 30 percent slower rate of cognitive decline than those who did not. Having purpose reduced the risk of Alzheimer's and its precursor, mild cognitive impairment. Even those whose brains had the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer's had better cognitive brain function. It's a remarkable finding.”

An article published last year in the Journal of Health Economics suggested that as people live longer, delaying retirement can not only help ease pressure on the social security system, but also makes people healthier.

“The results highlight a significant negative effect of retirement on cognitive functioning,” the authors wrote. “Our findings suggest that reforms aimed at promoting labour force participation at an older age may not only ensure the sustainability of social security systems but may also create positive health externalities for older individuals.”