We have all heard someone say it: they have decided to continue working beyond retirement age to ‘keep a sharp mind’. Now, this widely held notion has some science behind it.
“Oh, that’s absolutely substantial,” says Jo Mhairi Hale, a sociologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and lead author of the study.
Hale’s team drew their data from the massive Health and Retirement Study, a vast current mine of information on 20,000 Americans maintained by the University of Michigan.
What the study found about cognitive decline
The authors did not attempt to determine an optimal retirement age – which would depend heavily on individual circumstances – but their results suggest that as a general rule, pushing it back to 67 (vs. retiring between 55 and 66 years old) can prevent the type of cognitive decline that people with Alzheimer’s disease suffer from.
Study subjects experienced an average reduction of one-third of the typical cognitive declines seen in people aged 61 to 67. What’s more, the positive effects can be long-lasting, according to the authors, ranging from age 67 at least up to age 74.
Hale says a startling finding is that it doesn’t seem like it matters what kind of work you do, whether it’s very brain intensive or nearly insane. It all helps. In fact, cognitive benefits may not be related to paid employment at all.
“The three of us who wrote the paper aren’t suggesting that it’s paid work per se that protects against cognitive decline,” Hale told Next Avenue. “We think it’s a cognitive engagement.”
This idea is supported by some of the specific findings of Hale’s team, including that simply having a life partner offers some protection against decline.
“What if you retire at age 60 but are a grandparent and part of your day-to-day activity becomes grandparenting? Hale muses. “Or you are an active volunteer. Or you work part time as a museum guide or whatever. Does it provide the same kind of protective effects against cognitive decline? I guess it is.
The thing that matters, Hale said, “is cognitive engagement, not the fact that you get paid for your cognitive engagement.”
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75-year-old finds ways to challenge herself
Case in point: Beverly Farr from Richmond, California. At 75, she retired from her job as an education researcher for more than five years, but that doesn’t mean she has slowed down. On the contrary.
“I just loved being active and wanted to stay that way,” says Farr. “And I think a little part of that was the idea of keeping your mind active and, you know, just being active in general.”
That she did. Today, Farr juggles church activities and is a court-appointed foster youth lawyer. She also took on the heavy task of chairing the owners association of her 488 condominium complex. As if that weren’t enough, when his brother Roger passed away in 2019, Farr took over running his research practice on a part-time basis.
She particularly credits the often thankless work of the Homeowners Association for keeping it on its toes.
“It just energized me,” Farr says. “It gave me a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm and motivation to get things done.”
Hale notes that this type of engagement appears to benefit both men and women, although previous studies have shown that men tend to be more dependent on their work for their personal identity and social media. It also applies across racial and ethnic differences.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” says Paul Irving of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, after reviewing the study’s results. (He’s also a Next Avenue influencer when it comes to aging.)
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The importance of the goal
“Meeting other people and engaging with other people is empowering,” says Irving. “The job can be difficult and can provide learning opportunities. A changing environment demands adaptability and flexibility. I think it has implications for the health of the brain.
Irving says Max Planck’s findings help affirm previous research, including a 2018 study that found that “positive age-related beliefs” can act as a buffer against dementia, even in people genetically predisposed to it. age-related cognitive loss.
Irving cites other research that suggests factors such as purpose, connection, and lifelong learning are comparable to body mass index, smoking, and exercise as determinants. longevity.
“Having a certain sense of challenge, having a reason to wake up in the morning – best defined as a goal,” says Irving, whose 2014 book, “The Upside of Aging,” stressed the importance of the “P word”.
“This notion of finality throughout life, but above all the achievement of finality later in life it couldn’t be more important, ”says Irving. “And that can be done in a number of ways. We all set our own goal, and it could be a family or community activity or volunteer work. But work can be part of it.
People who have purpose, are engaged, and continue to be involved in the world, adds Irving, tend to be happier and healthier.
“And the corollary benefit is that they continue to bring value – their wisdom, judgment and experience – which benefits all of us, young people as well,” notes Irving.
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Hale’s main takeaway from her team’s results: “I think what we could say is that you need to stay cognitively engaged, like basically forever, for as long as you can. And honestly, it’s not about doing a crossword puzzle. I want to say, To do your crossword, but cognitive engagement needs to be seen much more broadly. Our article suggests that working full time is one way to do it.
Craig Miller’s career in broadcasting and journalism spans over 40 years, although since 2008 he has focused on monitoring climate science and policy. Miller launched and edited the award-winning multimedia initiative Climate Watch for KQED in San Francisco, where he remained science editor until August 2019. Prior to KQED, he spent two decades as a television reporter and documentary producer in the major stations in the market, as well as CNN and MSNBC. When he’s not working, his favorite place is his kayak on a scenic river or mountain lake.
This article is reproduced with permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2021 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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