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Can retiring early be harmful to your health?

retirement, health, brain, cognitive decline, early retirement

Can retiring early be harmful to your health?

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2 minute read

Many people aspire to retire early, enjoy the fruits of their labour and appreciate the rest of their life without the constraints of work.

However, scientists suggest that the dream of an early retirement isn’t always rosy.

The mental impact of retiring early has been subject to several international academic studies, but the findings are rarely discussed in the public domain. The term used is ‘cognitive decline’.

So, can it be true that retiring in your 40s or 50s can lead to a dulling of your brainpower?

Research suggests that retiring early can indeed dull the brain in many circumstances. Retirement, after all, isn’t solely a lifestyle change, it is also a highly mental change, and this can lead to a form of ‘mental retirement’ the effects of which could be worse for younger retirees.

The academic study compared the US and 12 European countries and tested cognitive performance, which they compared against employment rates (those in work aged 60-64 compared to those aged 50-54). The relative difference in cognitive performance is about twice as great in countries with early ages of retirement like France, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands as it is in countries with later retirement such as the United States, Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland. The UK is more aligned with the latter grouping.

Research findings demonstrate that there are at least two key factors at play. The first is that once retired, the retiree engages in fewer mental exercises than before and has less stimulation and faces fewer challenging situations. This is called the ‘unengaged lifestyle hypothesis’.

The second factor relates to ‘human capital’ and the ability for a person to generate a continuing and increasing income while still working. For workers late in their careers, say at age 55, they may slow down and opt out of learning if they expect to retire at age 57, as opposed to 65. This is called the “on-the-job” effect. The later retiree has an incentive to maintain and increase their cognitive skills to remain a valuable employee.

Within the conclusion of the paper by Susann Rohwedder and Robert Willis, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives and titled Mental Retirement, it says “Early retirement appears to have a significant negative impact on the cognitive ability of people in their early 60s that is both quantitatively important and causal. We obtain this finding using cross-nationally comparable survey data from the United States, England, and Europe that allow us to relate cognition and labour force status.”

That seems clear cut; however, not all work is mentally stimulating and the prospect of working until death just to stay sharp sounds depressing.

Rachel Wu of the University of California – Riverside, argues that we all might suffer from cognitive decline as adults because of the way we learn.

“When we’re kids, we’re encouraged to learn broadly: we take on multiple skills at once, we’re allowed to make mistakes, and learning is open-minded. As adults, we switch to specialized learning: we’re supposed to pick one career, one job role, and if we make mistakes, there are serious consequences, like losing a job. When you look across the lifespan from infancy, it seems likely that the decline of broad learning has a causal role in cognitive ageing. But, if adults were to engage in broad learning... like those from early childhood experiences, ageing adults could expand cognitive functioning beyond currently known limits.”

So, it’s not all doom and gloom for the lucky ones that manage to escape the rat race in their 40s and 50s, take a look at Everyday Health’s blog: '10 ways to rev up your brain and reduce the risk of cognitive decline’ for more ways to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

At Capital, we encourage and assist clients to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives, whether gainfully employed or not, and we emphasise the ‘never stop learning’ approach to life.

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