Are you looking forward to the time when you can putter around in the garden, amble across the golf links, take long-awaited vacations – or just sleep late?

Retirement can certainly bring great rewards, but if you don’t watch out, it can come at a heavy price.

The lack of regular stimulation that employment can bring may cause you to lose your edge, speeding up memory loss and increasing the risk of dementia. Here’s the scientific research that nobody’s talking about…

Delay Retirement and Delay Dementia

Whatever else you can say about a job – pro or con – it does challenge you and provide interaction with other people. And the mental exercise is good for your cognition.

Researchers from France looked at data on 429,803 retired self-employed men and women, and the results were stark. Every year these workers postponed retirement lowered their risk of dementia 3.1 percent.

The researchers wrote, “We show strong evidence of a significant decrease in the risk of developing dementia associated with older age at retirement, in line with the ‘use it or lose it’ hypothesis. [O]ur results indicate the potential importance of maintaining high levels of cognitive and social stimulation throughout work and retiree life.”

Meanwhile, researchers in the United Kingdom wanted to know if retirement increases the risk of cognitive decline based on the ‘use it or lose it’ concept, so they tested the idea in 3,433 civil servants.

The participants had their cognitive abilities measured for up to 14 years before they retired and 14 years following retirement.

After taking age-related cognitive decline into consideration, the research team found verbal memory diminished 38 percent faster after retirement than before retirement.

Those in the highest grade of the civil service were protected against verbal memory decline while they were still working, but their memories fell by a similar rate compared to all the other employment grades following retirement.1

This suggests even work with huge responsibilities, where ‘cognitive reserve’ – the cognitive “muscles” you develop as a result of facing intellectual and social challenges — has been built up over the years, won’t offer protection when working life finishes.

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Cary Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at the University of Manchester, read the research and said, “We know the more cognitively active you are, the more it offsets the risk of dementia.

“I’m not talking about Sudoku but doing something completely different from your job. If you worked in the civil service all your life, why not go and help out in a hospital, or teach? The most important thing is to interact with people.”2

In a third study, researchers from The State University of New York at Binghamton looked at the effect of retirement on people in China.

Their findings back Prof. Cooper’s advice. The Binghamton researchers found retirement can accelerate cognitive decline, and that social engagement and connectedness may be “the single most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age.”3

To Retire or Not to Retire

Many people are happily engaged in their occupations in their 70s, 80s and even into their 90s.

But others consider the work they do as mundane, boring, and stressful, and they look forward to its coming to an end. Limitations in mental and physical capacities with aging can also make work more of a challenge.

Whether you have to retire at a certain age or choose to take early retirement, what’s important is to have something to retire to as well as a job to retire from.

Neuroscientist, cognitive psychologist, and bestselling author Daniel J. Levitin summed it up best when he wrote, “Don’t retire. Don’t stop being engaged with meaningful work. This doesn’t mean that you need to stay in paid work but do something meaningful and purposeful.”