Exploring the Links between Retirement & Cognitive Decline

Tanvi Mallya, Founder, Tanvi Mallya's ElderCare Services (TMECS)Having completed her Master’s in Neuropsychology from the University of Bristol, Tanvi, in her 11-years long career, has worked with Music India, Xaviers Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged, Rotaract Club of Bombay North Island, and Epoch Elder Care, prior to founding TMECS in 2014.

When Neena’s 62 year old father stopped going to the club, something that was a daily ritual over the last 30 years, she didn’t think much of it initially. “I don’t feel like it today,” he’d say sometimes, or “It’s always the same people and same jokes” all perfectly acceptable reasons. Neena’s father had recently retired as the CEO of a big pharmaceutical multinational. She remembers expressing her concerns to her mother and her sister. But they chalked them up to the changes in his life after retirement, and attributed it to perhaps wanting to take it a little easy after many hectic decades of his professional life. It was not until two or three years later when her father had a fall that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Often, when a person first exhibits signs of dementia, close family member, almost always, attribute it to factors such as ageing, fatigue, loneliness or a health condition they may already have. Very rarely does the first train of thought attribute these signs to cognitive decline which is in fact often what it is. The elderly starts repeating the same stories or is unable to get home from the grocery store. The signs start subtle, and then get progressively more evident.

A 2013 study by the French research agency INSERM, showed that for
each additional year they worked, people reduced their risk of dementia by 3.2 percent. A longitudinal analysis by researchers at the University of Padova conducted in the same year found that retirement may also be associated with the onset of dementia. The study controlled for age, physical health, income, education, and early life conditions.

Verbal memory is the memory of words and abstractions in language. It is known to decline naturally with age. However, a study published online in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that verbal memorydeteriorated 38 percent faster post retirement. The report concluded stating, ‘Retirement accelerates the decline in verbal memory function’.

“We have found that work stimulates cognitive development to the extent that work is engaging and also challenging. I think we used to think that doing crossword puzzles was the best way to keep our cognitive abililty alive and developing and I think we’re seeing that it takes more than that. It’s much more important to do things that challenge the mind, like learning a new language, or learning a new technology,” says Jacquelyn James, Co-Director, Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.

Employment brings about a sense of accomplishment and offers opportunities for engaging in social interactions

Experts, however, advise that it is the nature of retirement and not the retirement in itself that maybe the influencing factor. For most people, retirement is accompanied by stress of finances, feelings of being a burden, feelings of loss of agency & sense of purpose, and loneliness that may predispose a person to dementia.

Employment is mentally stimulating. It brings about a sense of accomplishment and offers opportunities for engaging in social interactions. Losing-out on these opportunities post retirement may trigger anxiety in depression in some people. Some however embrace the process more gracefully using the withdrawal from their professional responsibilities to engage in passion projects or voluntary work or travel.

Age-related decline cannot be prevented or stopped – at least not yet. But a growing body of research provides hope that people can somewhat blunt its effects on their lives through a well balanced lifestyle one that is rich with nutritious food, regular exercise, engagement in cognitively stimulating activities, and sufficient social interaction. Regular brain checkups are a must to catch any neurodegenerative disorders in time. This helps the individual and the family plan care better for the coming years.