Your Brain on Retirement

Retiring at 55 and spending the rest of your life relaxing on the front porch may sound appealing, but if you want your brain to keep working, it’s probably not a good idea. Mounting evidence shows that staying in the workforce into old age is good not only for our bank accounts, but also for our health and mental acuity. With LDS people living 8-11 years longer than the average person there is more to consider when planning your retirement.

As medical advances extend the length of the human lifespan – and the number of healthy, active years – scientists, economists and policymakers are delving into the question of what the optimial time to stop working is.

One message is becoming clear: don’t stop too soon.

“Retiring too early can hurt you,” said Esteban Calvo, a sociologist with the Columbia Aging Center and the Institute of Public Policy at Diego Portales University in Chile. He is currently conducting a longitudinal study looking at over 100,000 people in 21 countries to determine the physical and mental effects of retirement.

So far, the study, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” shows negative effects for those who retire earlier than the mean age – and the outcomes are worse the earlier you stop working. “At 50 it will be very, very bad for your health,” Calvo said. “At 60 it will be bad but not as bad as at age 50.”

The study has so far looked at overall health, chronic diseases, ability to perform daily activities and happiness levels, and will look at cognitive functioning, telomere shortening, grip strength, and gait, where Calvo said he expects similar results.

So when is the sweet spot for retirement? The optimal age is around the late 60s but depends on factors from an individual’s financial security to the culture he lives in.

“It’s not that you have to work forever,” Calvo said. But those who retire too early feel more sad and lonely and disconnected. “You’ll be calling your friends to see if they want to play golf or see a movie and they will be at work, and five years later your friends will be calling you and you’ll say ‘I don’t want to play golf anymore.’ You’re living your life at a different pace from your peer group.”

If it’s true that working longer helps keep you healthy, then it may be that U.S. policies implemented for economic reasons will end up having social benefits. As Americans live longer, the retirement age to receive full Social Security benefits has been slowly inching up – traditionally 65, it is currently 66, and for people born in 1960 or later it will be 67.

The fact that a person is working may not in itself be as important as the kind of work one does, cautions Ursula Staudinger, director of the Columbia Aging Center and the lead author of a 2014 study of assembly line workers in Germany showing that those who changed tasks more often over 16 years had better brain function and cognitive performance than those who did not.

No matter when you retire, be mindful of how you do it, experts advise; retirement can in itself cause psychological stress that increases risk for dementia.

“We have found that work stimulates cognitive development to the extent that work is engaging and also challenging,” said Jacquelyn James, co-director of the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. “I think we used to think that doing crossword puzzles was the best way to keep our cognitive ability alive and developing and I think we’re seeing that it takes more than that. It’s much more important to do things that challenge the mind, like learning a new language, or learning a new technology.”

Tara Bahrampour
The Washington Post