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Early retirement may lead to first signs of dementia: study

“We were surprised to find that pension benefits and retirement actually resulted in reduced cognitive performance."

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Elderly woman with memory problem spending time in nursing home
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By Pol Allingham via SWNS

We may all dream of early retirement but it can lead to the first signs of dementia, according to a new study.

Elderly people who stopped working early had higher levels of cognitive impairment and suffer from slow memory - an important predictor of dementia.

And the team concluded that the negative health implications of stopping work early significantly outweigh the benefits.

Women fared the worst and alongside slow recall, early retirees engaged in fewer social activities.

However, they did drink less booze.

Researchers at Binghamton University in New York are determined how retirement plans impact the brain by studying China’s New Rural Pension Scheme (NRPS) and the Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Survey (CHARLS).

In 2009, China introduced a formal pension program, NRPS, to alleviate poverty in the older generation, in light of the nation’s rapidly aging population.

CHARLS tests the cognition of Chinese people aged over 45 and particularly focuses on memory and mental stability.

They found that NRPS was causing “significant adverse effects” on cognitive functioning among the elderly.

Policy decisions often undergo careful consideration of cause and effect.

However, understanding them in a wider context can be hampered because it is rarely possible or ethical to conduct controlled experiments.

The team conducted their own research by comparing areas the scheme exists with those where it does not.

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(Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

Plamen Nikolov, assistant professor of economics at Binghampton said: “Because of this large demographic boom, China introduced a formal pension program (called NRPS) in rural parts of the country.

“The program was introduced because of China’s rapidly rising aging population and in an effort to alleviate poverty in old age.

“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.

“For the elderly, inadequate transfers from either informal family and community transfers could severely reduce their ability to cope with illness or poor nutrition.

“Participants in the program report substantially lower levels of social engagement, with significantly lower rates of volunteering and social interaction than non-beneficiaries.

“We find that increased social isolation is strongly linked with faster cognitive decline among the elderly.

“We were surprised to find that pension benefits and retirement actually resulted in reduced cognitive performance.

“In a different study, we found a very robust finding that the introduction of pension benefits and retirement led to positive health benefits via improvements in sleep and the reduction of alcohol consumption and smoking.

“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 team was surprised to discover early retirement had the same negative effects in higher-income countries such as America, England and the European Union.

Professor Nikolav said: “Interestingly, we found that the program improved some health behaviors. Program participants reported a reduced incidence of regular alcohol drinking compared to the previous year.

“Overall, the adverse effects of early retirement on mental and social engagement significantly outweigh the program’s protective effect on various health behaviors.

“Alternatively, the kinds of things that matter and determine better health might simply be very different from the kinds of things that matter for better cognition among the elderly.

“Social engagement and connectedness may simply be the most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age.

“Individuals in the areas that implement the NRPS score considerably lower than individuals who live in areas that do not offer the NRPS program.

“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.”

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Admin data from the Chinese government was collected, and data from an additional survey detailing the behavior and socioeconomic characteristics of NRPS participants.

Writing in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, the researchers said they hope their discoveries will help create new policies that improve the minds of the older generations during retirement.

Professor Nikolav added: “We hope our findings will influence how retirees view their retirement activities from a more holistic perspective and pay particular attention to their social engagement, active volunteering, and participating in activities fostering their mental acuity.

“But we also hope to influence policymakers. We show robust evidence that retirement has important benefits.

“But it also has considerable costs. Cognitive impairments among the elderly, even if not severely debilitating, bring about a loss of quality of life and can have negative welfare consequences.

“Policymakers can introduce policies aimed at buffering the reduction of social engagement and mental activities.

“In this sense, retirement programs can generate positive spillovers for the health status of retirees without the associated negative effect on their cognition.”

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