Could avoiding early retirement protect your brain as you age?

·7-min read
Early retirement brings plenty of obvious benefits, but your brain might thank you for remaining in work for longer - iStockphoto
Early retirement brings plenty of obvious benefits, but your brain might thank you for remaining in work for longer - iStockphoto

The working from home revolution that came as a side effect of the pandemic attracted both support and resistance. Many workers felt relieved to cut out the hours and money they’d spent commuting to the office, while others worried about the loss of networking opportunities and career progression.

But in the “pluses” column there appears to be an often-overlooked result of the increase in flexibility: the greater likelihood of older workers postponing their retirement. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), those in their late 50s and early 60s are increasingly considering delaying retirement plans as a result of being able to work from home during the Covid crisis. A recent survey found 11 per cent of over-50s who were working entirely from home planned to retire late, compared with five per cent of those going into work. Improved work-life balance and wellbeing were cited.

Previous research has also shown the importance of flexible working options in enabling older workers to remain in the labour market. All of this led the ONS to suggest last month that the shift towards working from home “may help enable older workers to remain in the labour market for longer.”

This would undoubtedly bring economic benefits. It’s been estimated that if the employment rate of people aged 50 to 64 matched that of those aged 35 to 49 it would add more than five per cent to UK gross domestic product, or £88 billion. But could postponing retirement also bring significant health benefits?

A recent study by researchers affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany found that postponing retirement was protective against cognitive decline. Their analysis of data from the US Health and Retirement Study found working until the age of 67 was protective against cognitive impairment such as that caused by Alzheimer’s disease. These beneficial effects appeared to exist irrespective of gender and educational or career level.

“Our study suggests that there may be a fortuitous unintended consequence of postponed retirement,” said research scientist Angelo Lorenti.

It is not the first time a connection has been established between working for longer and staving off cognitive decline. In 2019, research carried out by academics at Binghamton University in New York suggested those who retire younger may be more likely to develop dementia than those who work into old age. The researchers analysed data from China to assess the effects of pension benefits on cognition among the over-60s. They found there were significant negative effects, the most common of which was delayed recall – a key predictor of dementia. Plamen Nikolov, assistant professor in the Department of Economics at Binghamton, said the results supported the “mental retirement hypothesis”: that decreased mental activity results in the worsening of cognitive skills.

But evidence on whether working for longer is better or worse for you remains somewhat mixed. Nikolov admitted he was surprised by his finding, given a previous study of his had found retirement led to positive health benefits due to improvements in sleep and a reduction in alcohol consumption and smoking.

So what does this mean for those in their 50s and 60s who are wondering whether to carry on working until, or beyond, State Pension age – or throw in the towel in favour of golf and gardening?

According to James Goodwin, director of Science and Research Impact at the Brain Health Network and author of Supercharge Your Brain, what matters is not so much when you retire but what you do before and afterwards.

“Some research has shown there are general health benefits to be derived from retiring early. Other studies have found there are health detriments as a result of retirement,” he says. “My own conclusion is that retirement in itself doesn’t categorically harm or benefit health: the consequences vary across individuals. [So] it’s not the event of your retirement, it’s your lifestyle and conditions before and after you retire [that predict the health impact].”

Those whose lifestyles promote their health and wellbeing pre-retirement are more likely to maintain good health once they have stopped working, he suggests. And vice versa.

This holds true not only for general health but specifically for cognitive function and dementia risk. Researchers have previously identified at least 12 modifiable risk factors that can increase the likelihood of dementia. These include high blood pressure, smoking, physical inactivity, excessive alcohol consumption, social isolation and obesity.

Limiting your exposure to these risk factors at any stage of your life can make an appreciable difference to your risk of developing dementia.

But when approaching retirement age specifically, Goodwin says it’s important older workers don’t simply drift into it without a plan. “You need to identify what kind of retirement you want,” he says, pointing out that there are concrete things we can do to help us retain our cognitive skills. “Ensure your mind is challenged,” he says. “Don’t cruise in your comfort zone because that will predispose you towards decline. Take up new challenges, sports, hobbies and skills. That will be very good for your cognitive maintenance.”

Another important way to protect your brain in retirement is to maintain social interaction, he points out. “Social isolation does result in a high risk of cognitive decline,” he says. “So being socially active with family, friends and neighbours is really important.”

Maintaining a clear sense of purpose is also crucial. “Even if people feel they don’t like their job and are looking forward to retirement, [work] gives them a reason to get up every day and a sense of purpose,” says Dr Zoe Wyrko, a geriatrician and wellbeing director for Riverstone Living. “If people go into retirement and don’t have anything planned, that’s where it can cause issues.”

Those who retire because there are so many other things they want to do, such as caring for younger family members or putting their time into hobbies or courses, are likely to fare better, she suggests.

The problem is we prepare young people to enter the jobs market, but we seldom prepare older people for what happens when they leave it, she warns.

“Although there are some retirement preparation courses out there, it’s not taken as seriously as it should be,” says Wyrko. “A lot of it is thinking ‘what next?’ Because doing nothing isn’t good for any of us.”

Various scientific studies have backed this up. In 2015, researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago reported that having a strong sense your life has meaning and direction may make you less likely to develop areas of brain damage caused by blockages in blood flow as you age. These blockages can contribute to dementia, among other problems.

Meanwhile a positive attitude has been found to add seven years to your lifespan. “It reduces inflammation in the body,” says Goodwin.

If retirement is devoid of all these things, then perhaps working is the healthier option. But, warns Goodwin, the rewards of postponing retirement must outweigh the risks. “If you’re sitting at your desk all day, under deadline pressure, disliking your colleagues and your boss and constantly snacking, the rewards of leaving have got to be beneficial. But [the danger is] you can go into an equally unrewarding retirement.”

Phased retirements can work really well, he suggests: they give older people more time and space for themselves while allowing them to continue enjoying the cognitive and physical health benefits of being in work – the social interaction and the sense of challenge and of having a purpose in life.

To protect brain health as you age, “you have to make really well-considered decisions about how you can sustain retirement,” Goodwin says. “You’ve got to plan it well.”

Don’t miss our new series starting tomorrow on how and why you should keep your mind fit in midlife

For more information on World Alzheimer’s Day, see the Alzheimer’s Society

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