Does retirement promote cognitive decline?

Retirement is a crucial time in life whose effects on health and the brain are not yet fully understood. A recent study suggests that retirement accelerates cognitive decline. What is it really ?

Aging is an inevitable process. Over time, the body gets damaged and tired, our abilities physicalphysical and cognitive decline. But biology is not the only one to dictate its law, environmental, economic or sociological factors also influence the way we age. While the pension reform is at the heart of political news with its presentation by the government on January 10, 2023, economists have been interested in the effect of the establishment of a pension in China on cognition beneficiaries. What if retirement promotes cognitive decline?

Is aging irreversible?

A cognitive decline observed in China

The article appeared in Journal of Economics Behavior & Organization was not written by brain specialists. It is therefore not a question of understanding the biological phenomena linked to cognitive decline but how political decisions can promote or limit it. In 2009, the Chinese government implemented the New Rural Pension Scheme (NRPS), a financial assistance whose objective is to reduce poverty among the elderly living in rural areas of the country. It is paid from the age of 60, whether the person is actually retired or not. In 2021, China had 261 million people in their 60s. The aging of the population is not slowing down: some projections estimate that the country will have 487 million in 2050, or 35% of Chinese. Their care is therefore a crucial issue.

While the NRPS has provided financial stability to rights holders, economists have observed that it has also contributed to their cognitive decline, especially among women. Memory capacities (remembering the past, or words, etc.) are particularly affected and the decline appears around four years after the start of the program, around the age of 64.

Program participants report significantly lower social engagement, with less volunteering and social interaction, than non-recipients. We found that theinsulationinsulation is strongly linked to faster cognitive decline among seniors. But we have also observed that the program promotes certain health-promoting behaviors. Program participants report drinking lessalcoholalcohol compared to previous years. Overall, the adverse effects of early retirement on mental and social engagement outweigh its protective effects on health », explains Plamen Nikolov, one of the two economists behind the study.

A question still too little investigated

The very specific context in which this study is anchored makes its conclusions difficult to transpose to French retirees, for example, especially since the scientific literature is not necessarily aligned with them. The subject of cognitive decline at the time of retirement does not fascinate scientists. A systematic review published in 2017 and carried out by Danish researchers from the National Research Center for the Working Environment was only able to compile seven relevant studies, with varying quality. Their conclusion is more nuanced. Some studies analyzed observe a cognitive decline in retirees, others do not.

Overall, the evidence is too divergent to form a definitive opinion on the matter. The Danish researchers note that cognitive decline may be more pronounced in people who leave a mentally demanding job. Activities during retirement could also play a role. There are still many unknowns.

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