Think retirement is smooth sailing? A look at its potential effects on the brain

Jul 2, 2019 /

Emerging research suggests that retirement could lead to a decline in your cognitive function, says gerontologist Ross Andel. Anyone who’s retired or thinking about retirement should read this to learn more.

Ah, retirement. It’s the never-ending weekend, that well-deserved oasis of freedom and rest we reach after decades of hard work. As long as we have good health and sufficient savings, we’ll be OK, right?

Not quite. Some studies have linked retirement to poorer health and a decline in cognitive functioning — at times resulting in as much as double the rate of cognitive aging. This leaves people at a greater risk of developing various types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“Of course, this decline after retirement does not apply to everyone,” says gerontology researcher Ross Andel. “But it seems like enough people experience this decline shortly after retiring for us to be concerned,” he says. Andel (TEDxFulbrightCanberra Talk: Is retirement bad for your brain?) has studied aging and cognition for nearly two decades.

Most recently Andel, the director of the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, has analyzed years of data collected from older adults going through the work-to-retirement transition (his results have not yet been published). The subjects in his analysis are part of the PATH Through Life Project, a large, ongoing, longitudinal study started in 2001 that consists of adults from the southern Australian territory of Canberra and the city of Queanbeyan. Every four years, participants answer questions about their health, circumstances and lifestyle and complete a number of tests that gauge memory, speed of thinking, verbal abilities and other cognitive skills.

“The decline in speed of processing — something that’s supposed to be the main indicator of the aging of the brain — was quite pronounced,” says Andel of his findings. Speed of processing refers to how quickly we can make sense of information we’re given. Why is it so important? “If people take longer to process information, they’re more likely to forget it; they’re also more likely to get confused,” explains Andel. He adds, “Speed of processing relies on a healthy brain network. If there’s any type of impairment, information needs to travel through alternative pathways. That slows down information; that leads to memory loss, and disorientation, and so on.”

Although scientists don’t know exactly why these kinds of impairments happen, Andel speculates that it could be related to the density of dendrites. Our nervous system is made up of neurons, and dendrites are the neuronal structures that typically receive electrical signals transmitted via the axon, the long, cable-like nerve fiber of the neuron. “Each neuron can have a lot of dendrites or just one; it depends on how active that neuron is,” Andel says. The more information travels through the synapse, which forms between the axon of one neuron and the dendrite of another, “the more synapses are created. They’re created by growing the number of dendrites,” he adds.

Why might retirement lead to changes in our brain circuitry? One possibility raised by Andel: If we’re not using our brains in the same way we did when we were working, “a lot of these connections become dormant … [and] those dendrites will recede.” It’s the old “use it or lose it” hypothesis.

Based on his own research and others’, Andel hypothesizes that we might be particularly susceptible to cognitive decline when “there’s lack of an activity that will replace [our] occupation.” As he notes, people who volunteer appear to experience less cognitive decline than those who don’t. “We don’t know whether it’s the intellectual stimulation from volunteering or whether it’s simply the routine. I think it’s more about routine and individual sense of purpose,” he says.

Routine may sound tiresome, but it could potentially be what we need in retirement. Andel says, “Circadian rhythm is maintained much better when we have certain tasks that we perform regularly, like getting up at a certain time, going to do something … and then going to bed at a certain time.” This isn’t always easy, especially when you don’t have the direct incentive that comes from paid employment. “It takes a lot of intrinsic motivation,” he says.

Andel’s suggestion to anyone contemplating retirement: “Find a new routine that’s meaningful.” He points to people living in the Blue Zones, regions of the world that have been identified to be home to a greater number of residents who’ve reached the age of 100 and beyond. One of the common characteristics among Blue Zone inhabitants is, says Andel, “these people all have purpose.”

But what provides a sense of purpose varies from person to person. So, don’t be alarmed if your post-9-to-5 get-out-of-bed plans don’t resemble those of your partner, friends or family members. As Andel puts it, purpose is about “investing yourself into something that has meaning. It might not have meaning to others but maybe it has meaning to you.”

Your post-retirement purpose could be learning to play the hurdy-gurdy, mastering origami, bird-watching, planting guerilla gardens in your neighborhood, playing with grandkids, or just about anything. However, it should include a specific activity or activities. “The routine shouldn’t be, ‘I’ll sleep until I wake up and then I’ll see if there is anything to do,’” says Andel. “It should be, ‘OK, I’m getting up at this time and my plan is to complete these things.’” Engaging in a meaningful pursuit could also connect you to others, which itself offers psychological and physical benefits.

One thing that retirees should not feel compelled to do (unless they like them): Crossword puzzles or brain-teasers. Yes, many of us have heard of the study about the nuns who did crossword puzzles and who appeared to live longer, healthier lives. But for starters, there are other factors that could have led to their wellness; there’s also no one-size-fits-all prescription for healthy aging, according to Andel. “I’m intentionally avoiding saying that purpose is about intellectual engagement,” he says. “I think that’s a dead end. It’ll work for some because that’s what they want to do, but it’ll just be a step in the wrong direction for others because it’ll bore them to death.”

Instead of thinking of retirement as a permanent holiday, it might be more helpful to perceive it as a time of personal renaissance. We could see our post-work life as a “wonderful opportunity to reinvest in things that truly matter to us. We can take on that hobby we always wanted to have,” Andel says. “We can re-engage with our family or friends, maybe in a brand-new or more complete way.”

Research into retirement and cognitive decline is still in its preliminary stages, cautions Andel. He says, “We don’t know exactly what it is about retirement; we just don’t understand it well enough.” Andel himself plans to keep studying the subject and understanding its effects — he has no plans yet to retire.

Watch his TEDxFulbrightCanberra talk now: