Study reveals effects of retirement on cognition

Photo by Max Harlynking photo - accessed on Unsplash

A Binghamton University study conducted in China has uncovered the potential negative effects of retirement on the cognitive ability for those aged 60 years and older.
Plamen Nikolov, an assistant professor of economics at Binghamton who helped facilitate the research, looked at the introduction of a pension program in areas of rural China aimed at supporting the burgeoning older demographic in the country.
Areas that implemented this pension program — known as the New Rural Pension Scheme (NRPS) — observed older individuals score lower on a variety of cognitive tests, some of which are early indicators for dementia and cognitive decline.
“Over the almost 10 years since its implementation, the program led to a decline in cognitive performance by as high as almost a fifth of a standard deviation on the memory measures we examine,” Nikolav wrote in a press release. “The fact that retirement led to reduced cognitive performance in and of itself is a stark finding about an unsuspected, puzzling issue, but a finding with extremely important welfare implications for one’s quality of life in old age.”
The NRPS was a response to a quickly growing older demographic in China, which has seen a burst in the senior population in recent years due to lowered fertility rates, higher standards of living and higher rates of longevity.
This shift towards an older population has happened across the globe in the past century. In the past 50 years, life expectancy after birth has increased by roughly two decades according to the World Health Organization.
In developing nations, this increase is even starker: between 1950 and 2002, longevity gain has been raised by as much as 26 years.
The trend is not slowing down anytime soon, either. The Binghamton study stated that in Asia and Latin America, it was predicted that older age groups will triple between 2017 and 2050, with the dependency ratio — the difference between those working and those not in the labour force — rising as high as 44 per cent by 2050.
In response to these trends and the boom of an older population needing outside support, China rolled out the NRPS in 2009 to select areas.
“The program was introduced on the basis of an economy’s needs and capacity, in particular, to alleviate poverty in old age,” wrote Nikolov. “In rural parts of the country, traditional family-based care for the elderly had largely broken down, without adequate formal mechanisms to take its place.”
The Binghamton study compared the results of cognitive tests administered to older adults both in and outside the areas receiving NRPS benefits. These tests indicated that the NRPS had significant negative effects on cognitive outcomes for those aged 60 or higher.
The study tested the cognitive ability with a focus on episodic memory and other components that would indicate an “intact mental status,” with areas that received pension benefits scoring lower. Moreover, the results of these tests indicated women were more severely and negatively impacted.
“Our findings support the mental retirement hypothesis that decreased mental activity results in atrophy of cognitive skills and suggest that retirement plays a significant role in explaining cognitive decline at older age,” Nikolav wrote.
The impacts of the NRPS in China were also similar to negative findings in other, higher-income countries, including the United States, England and the European Union, with Nikolav pointing out that the effects of retirement are a global issue.
While there were other physical and social benefits that resulted from the program, such as better nutrition, an increase in rest and lowered alcohol use, Nikolov said that the negative effects either far outweighed those benefits or that “the kinds of things that matter and determine better health might simply be very different than the kinds of things that matter for better cognition among the elderly.”
“Social engagement and connectedness may simply be the single most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age.”
Nikolav wrote that he hopes the study influences policymakers on the potential cognitive costs of retirement and that governments could aim to include and introduce programming that aims at “buffering the reduction of social engagement” in addition to providing a social safety net.