The Early Retirement & Alzheimer's Connection You Need To Know About, According to New Study

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It's not uncommon to hear and read about the wonders of retirement. Images of the 50-plus population playing golf, traveling the world, and finally having time to plant that tomato garden are ubiquitous on TV and in other media.

And it's not a totally crazy idea, either: You hustle now and enjoy the fruits of your labor later on, right?

According to new research, you might want to do some rethinking if this is your life game plan. The new study, published in the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, showed that early retirement can accelerate cognitive decline.

Is there a connection between early retirement and cognitive decline?

The study was performed by analyzing data connected from CHARLS (Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Survey), the sister survey of the U.S. Health and Retirement Survey, that collected information from people ages 45 and above living in China. Specifically, they were analyzing the effect of a NRPS, a formal pension program created in rural parts of China to combat poverty in those 60 years old and above. As one of the co-authors, Plamen Nikolov—an assistant professor of economics at Binghamton University—explained, "In rural parts of the country, traditional family-based care for the elderly had largely broken down, without adequate formal mechanisms to take its place."

Surprisingly, the results of the analysis showed that these pension benefits had a negative effect on the cognitive functioning among the elderly. The most significant impact was a delay in recall, which is a factor widely considered a predictor of dementia—which includes Alzheimer's, a disease that already affects 5.8 million Americans and is expected to affect more like 14 million by 2050. The negative effects were more pronounced in women, who are also more likely to get Alzheimer's disease.

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Does early retirement do more harm than good?

Previous research has found that pension benefits and retirement programs lead to positive health outcomes by way of improving sleep and reducing alcohol and tobacco use. But according to this study, the negative effects on cognition outweigh any of these positive health benefits. As Nikolov explained, "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." If you're surprised by that finding, so were the researchers. "The fact that retirement led to reduced cognitive performance in and of itself is a stark finding about an unsuspected, puzzling issue, but a finding with extremely important welfare implications for one's quality of life in old age," said Nikolov.

So what explains this connection between retirement and Alzheimer's? The researchers think it has to do with retirement's negative impact on mental fitness and social engagement. So does that mean that none of us can retire early? Not necessarily. You may just want to make a serious effort to stay engaged mentally and socially. In fact, based on this study, "Social engagement and connectedness may simply be the single most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age," said Nikolov.

The authors hope that the finding of this study will help spark programs that support mental and social engagement in the elderly and retired populations. "We hope our findings will influence retirees themselves but perhaps, more importantly, it will influence policymakers in developing countries," said Nikolov. So as it turns out, we may be able to retire early and also have a healthy brain for life.

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