Putting off retirement curbs cognitive decline: study

A new study of 20,000 Americans found that putting off retirement until 67 helped with issues of cognitive decline.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read August 31, 2021

A new study looked at individuals who retired at 67 and measured cognition. Getty

A new study has found it may pay to postpone retirement until the age of 67 because ongoing participation in the workforce has the “fortuitous, unintended consequence” of slowing the rate of cognitive decline.

The research, published in the journal SSM Population Health, said this protective benefit — which was consistent regardless of gender, education level or occupational attainment — helps guard against Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related impairments. Because the accumulation of risk factors over the course of a lifetime has an effect on both cognition and the age at which a person retires, the relationship between the two has proven difficult to quantify in the past.

“In this study, we approach retirement and cognitive function from the perspective that they both come near the end of a long path of life,” said Angelo Lorenti, one of the authors of the study and a researcher with the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock, Germany. “It begins with one’s social origins in ethnicity, gender and early-life social and economic status, goes on with educational and occupational attainment and health behaviours and goes all the way up to more proximate factors such as partnership status and mental and physical health.

“All these kinds of factors accumulate and interact over a lifetime to affect both cognitive function and age at retirement.”

The study relied on extensive health data from more than 20,000 Americans between the ages of 55 and 75 who participated in the Health and Retirement Study. It had three hypotheses: That putting off retirement until the age of 67 is more protective of cognitive decline than retiring between the ages of 55 and 66; That this is more protective for men than women, for those with higher levels of education and for those with professional occupations; and that depressive symptoms and comorbidities mediate the protective effect of postponing retirement on later-life cognitive function.

After accounting for demographic and early life factors, the interdependence between educational and occupational attainment, labour force participation and health, the study found that putting off retirement until age 67 did indeed insulate against cognitive decline. “The effect is related to a slowed rate of cognitive decline versus a ‘boost’ in cognitive function,” researchers wrote. “The protective effect appears to hold regardless of gender, educational attainment or occupational attainment, thus we find no clear evidence for Hypothesis 2— that certain subgroups would differentially benefit from postponed retirement.”

Similarly, they discounted depression or comorbidities as underlying factors at play in cognitive decline. “We find no evidence for Hypothesis 3 that retirement’s negative effect on cognitive function is because retirement causes depressive symptoms or health problems that, in turn, cause cognitive decline.”

With longer life expectancies prompting governments around the world to postpone statutory retirement, researchers are hopeful their work on cognitive decline, or the lack thereof, will help inform future policy. “Our findings suggest that postponed retirement is beneficial to cognitive function for all genders, races/ethnicities, educational levels and regardless of professional or non-professional occupational status,” they wrote.

“The clear implication is that more recent cohorts who have an older statutory retirement age, may, indeed, enjoy an enduring protective effect of postponed retirement against cognitive decline.”

Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca