As they age, many Americans begin to think about the best time to retire.
Yet a new study is throwing warning signs around the move, as retiring early could actually make people’s health worse.
A recent article published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization suggests that early retirement may accelerate cognitive decline in late adulthood.
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“Program participants report significantly lower levels of social engagement, with significantly lower rates of volunteering and social interaction than non-recipients,” said lead author Plamen Nikolov, assistant professor of economics at Binghamton University, State University of New York at the time. of publication, in a press release on the study.
“We find that increased social isolation is strongly related to faster cognitive decline in older adults,” he also said.
Here’s how the study analyzed cognitive functioning.
With a rapidly aging population, China in 2009 introduced a formal retirement program in rural parts of the country to combat old-age poverty.
This is called the New Rural Pension Scheme (NRPS), Nikolov noted.
“Increased social isolation was strongly associated with faster cognitive decline in older adults.”
“The program is a defined contribution program for retirement benefits, so consider it like a 401k in the United States — except the government administers it in China,” he told Fox News Digital.
The program is a voluntary opt-in, “so you don’t have to participate”.
“The basic feature is that if you reach age 60, benefits kick in – like an annuity that entitles you to monetary benefits,” he noted.
“So you don’t have to retire early to get the benefits, but many [do] retire earlier than they would have without the program,” he also said.
The researchers analyzed this program using a cognitive survey called the Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Survey (CHARLS) to see how retirement plans affect cognitive performance.
The negative influence of early retirement on mental health activities as well as social engagement outweighed the protective benefits on health behaviors.
Participants in the retirement program reported a reduced incidence of regular alcohol consumption compared to the previous year, the researchers found, but they also found that participants reported lower rates of volunteering and social interaction than those of non-beneficiaries.
They also noted that increased social isolation was strongly associated with faster cognitive decline in older people.
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The study concluded that the negative influence of early retirement on mental health activities as well as social engagement outweighed the protective benefits on health behaviors.
The study and research design aims to detect the true causal effects of retirement on cognitive impairment.
The researchers found that the most important predictor of cognitive decline was delayed recall, which previous research has shown to be a strong predictor of dementia.
Nikolov and his team said their study and research design aimed to detect the true causal effects of retirement on cognitive impairment.
“One of the most difficult problems in economics and social science research is determining whether a relationship between two variables is causal or fortuitous,” said Nikolov, who currently resides in Washington, DC.
Untangling cause and effect
However, understanding the cause and effect of an economic or political decision is often impossible because randomized controlled trials of policies are often not practical or ethically possible, the study’s press release pointed out.
For example, in a randomized controlled trial – the research gold standard for showing the effectiveness of a treatment or intervention – participants are randomized to a treatment group or a control group without knowing their group, according to the National Institutes of Health.
To disentangle cause and effect when a randomized trial is not possible, economists use a method called “natural experiments.”
It uses random events or real-life situations that create events or policies that can mimic controlled experiments, Nikolov told Fox News Digital.
Applying natural experiments to unravel cause and effect relationships has been so influential that a team of economists who originally introduced the method were awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Economics, he said.
Why Early Retirement Can Worsen Cognitive Decline
Using this statistical tool, Nikolov noted that researchers were able to study the impact of the decision to retire on cognition by comparing two groups.
They compared a group of people of similar age and socioeconomic characteristics who participated in the retirement program – and another group of people of similar characteristics in areas where no retirement program existed.
“When you go to work, you are actively using your brain – and in a way, going to work helps your mental abilities.”
People in areas that had the pension program scored significantly lower than people who live in areas that do not offer the program.
These results were surprising, according to the study, because they were similar to the results of the same phenomenon in high-income countries or regions, such as America, England and the European Union.
Benefits of interacting with others
“When you go to work, you’re actively using your brain — and in some ways going to work helps your mental abilities, like going to the gym improves physical fitness,” Nikolov told Fox News Digital.
The study also highlights the benefits of interacting with other people as we age.
“When we interact with people, there are at least two components that are beneficial to you,” he added.
The first part is social interaction, where “social connectedness can generate a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being.”
He also said, “The second benefit of a wider social network is that greater interaction with friends and family naturally enhances mental and intellectual stimulation.”
“We show strong evidence that retirement has significant benefits. But it also has significant costs.”
He also noted in the press release on the study: “The kinds of things that matter for better health might just be very different from the kinds of things that matter for better cognition in older people. Social engagement and connectivity may simply be the most powerful factors for cognitive performance in older adults.”
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He also said in the statement, “We hope our findings will influence how retirees view their retirement activities from a more holistic perspective and pay particular attention to their social engagement, active volunteering and participation in activities that promote their mental acuity,” Nikolov said.
He said the researchers “also hope to influence policy makers. We show strong evidence that retirement has significant benefits. But it also has significant costs.”
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Further studies are needed to generalize the findings outside of China, Nikolov told Fox News Digital, and to confirm whether early retirement has a similar impact on cognitive health in other settings.
He added: “Although the survey was designed to be representative of China, it is very difficult to generalize from this study about how the deployment of similar programs translates into the cognitive health of other populations. . [that exhibit] very different socio-economic characteristics.
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