A longtime colleague of mine retired last week, just shy of his 66th birthday. I congratulated him and inquired how he managed to sock away enough dough to keep him and his wife solvent into their golden years.
“We have nine retirement accounts,” he reported.
As I attempted to digest this information, he explained that he’d been investing a little money every month for as long as he’s been gainfully employed. The mortgage payment is now a distant memory, his debt load is manageable, and he’s calculated — correctly, I assume — that there’s enough accumulated wealth to allow him to step away from paid labor for the rest of his days. “It’ll be a little tight,” he admitted, “but we’ll be OK.”\
I don’t doubt it. He’s one smart cookie.
My fiscal acumen, on the other hand, has seldom proven to be an asset. A failed publishing venture in my early 50s pushed my family into bankruptcy, a notable stumble that earlier financial recklessness probably could’ve predicted. For years, My Lovely Wife and I lived from paycheck to paycheck. The money arrived and departed like a visiting relative: The interlude between “hello” and “goodbye” always tended to be fairly brief.
Our bank account has fattened considerably during my current gig, but there’s 13 years left on the mortgage. And while we’ve saved enough to cover a year or so of long-term care, that and Social Security checks are hardly enough to handle monthly expenses into our dotage. Retirement, for this newly minted septuagenarian, is not exactly looming over the horizon.
So, I was heartened last week to come across a new study suggesting that postponing retirement might help me maintain what little brain function I currently enjoy — or at least slow its decline.
Using data from the ongoing Health and Retirement Study, a team from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research tracked the cognitive performance of nearly 20,500 individuals ranging in age from 55 to 75 who were working at some point between 1996 and 2014. Their results, published in the journal SSM – Population Health, offer some solace to geezers like me who hang on to their jobs: “Compared with retiring between age 55 and 66, postponing retirement until age 67 and older will be protective against cognitive decline.”
Interestingly, this seems to hold true regardless of gender, income, education, partnership status, and mental or physical health. Across the board, the study found that those who kept working longer reduced the rate of cognitive decline by 30 to 34 percent. It’s not that they became sharper, the researchers note; they just lost their marbles more slowly than those who retired at an earlier age.
I’ve always figured that this had something to do with the brain going slightly numb once you leave the daily challenges of employment, but the researchers found little connection between cognitive performance and mental or physical health. “We hypothesized that a mechanism through which retirement may affect cognitive function may be related to experiencing some level of depression and/or health insults as a result of retirement,” they write. “We did not find evidence that either of these explained much of the association between retirement and cognitive function.”
In fact, they can’t really explain why my geezer brain might benefit from grinding through the 9-to-5 for the foreseeable future. A 2019 study from Binghamton University in New York, however, argues that it’s the lack of social engagement and mental activity that deadens our aging gray matter.
Reviewing the effects of a new pension program in rural China over a 10-year period, Plamen Nikolov, PhD, and Alan Adelman, PhD, found that retirement improved certain aspects of the pensioners’ physical health, but it didn’t do their brains any favors. “For cognition among the elderly, it looks like the negative effect on social engagement far outweighed the positive effect of the program on nutrition and sleep,” Nikolov explains. “Or alternatively, 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.”
I’m not worried about my former colleague, though. He has a wide network of friends, and I know he will stay engaged — in both body and mind — well into his golden years. I’m not sure I could say the same about myself. Take me out of the workaday world and I’m likely to become even less sociable than I already am. And I’ve never had any interest in crossword puzzles or sudoku. I can imagine brain rot setting in pretty quickly.
Plus, that paycheck comes in handy.
“Would you retire if you had the money?” he asked after we had discussed his postcareer plans.
“No, I don’t think so,” I replied. “I might feel differently if I had to deal with a brutal commute or a toxic work culture, but this is a pretty good gig.”
His commute was brutal, and his job was stressful. He made the smart choice, one that I hope I won’t have to make for a good long time. How smart I’ll be at that point is anyone’s guess.