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Retirement Causes Short-Term Memory To Decline 38% Faster

If you’re looking for a way to preserve your memory and protect your brain as you age, experts say you may want to think twice about retiring. 

That’s because in a new study from researchers at the University College London and Kings College London found that retiring can significantly impact your short-term memory.1 

In fact, it can accelerate the loss of short-term memory by as much as 38%. 

The Whitehall II Study recruited civil servants between the ages of 35-55 working in the London offices of 20 Whitehall departments between 1985-1988. The response rate was 73% resulting in a sample of 6,895 men and 3,413 women. The participant's employment ranged from clerical grades, through to senior administrative grades. 

Next, the study reviewed cognitive function data that had been collected every 2 to 3 years between 1997 and 2013. Overall, the analysis involved 3,433 people (72% male) who moved from work to retirement and had a cognitive assessment at least once before and once after retirement. 

At each of the 4 assessments the researchers recorded the self-reported employment status of each individual and put them through a series of memory and health tests. 

These tests included:

  • verbal memory (memory for words and verbal items)
  • abstract reasoning (ability to think quickly and identify patterns)
  • verbal fluency (retrieve specific information)

Next the researchers looked at the relationship between retirement and overall cognitive function, making adjustments based on the following factors: 

  • year of birth
  • gender
  • education 
  • smoking status
  • alcohol consumption
  • depression symptoms
  • blood pressure
  • body mass index
  • total blood cholesterol 
  • cardiovascular disease
  • cancer
  • diabetes

They also looked at the reasons behind the individual’s retirement. For example, was it due to long-term sickness, which was defined as health-related retirement or did they simply choose to retire?

What they discovered is that even when the employment was more mentally challenging and more brain stimulating, that in and of itself wasn’t enough to prevent age related cognitive decline unless the person continued to be both mentally and physically active. 

The researchers explained, “the smaller cognitive decline before retirement in employees from high employment grade jobs points to the potential benefits of cognitively stimulating activities associated with employment that could benefit older people’s memory.”

In addition, the research team went on to say, "in support of the 'use it or lose it hypothesis' we found that retirement is associated with faster declines in verbal memory function over time but has little impact on other domains of cognitive functions, such as abstract reasoning and verbal fluency."

In addition, the researchers believed that the findings from the study highlight the benefits of continuing to challenge the mind and encouraging work activities to help aging adults stay mentally sharp.  

One of the biggest strengths of this study is the fact that it was able to assess a large number of people and look at cognitive changes over a long period of time, both before and after retirement. 

It also took into account a variety of factors and health related issues that could potentially influence memory and general cognitive abilities.  

With that being said, the study only showed a decline in verbal memory. In other words, it had no effect on other areas of cognition.  

And it remains unclear as to whether the 38% decline in verbal memory would make much of a difference in a person’s day to day life. However, it does show that retirement may make a meaningful change in a person’s short-term memory.   

The findings of the study were published in the European Journal of Epidemiology. 

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References:

1. Xue, Baowen et al. "Effect Of Retirement On Cognitive Function: The Whitehall II Cohort Study." European Journal of Epidemiology (2017)

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