Use It or Lose It

A new study strongly suggests what many of us have suspected – or feared:  “the earlier people retire, the more quickly their memories decline.”  Interestingly, the data was compiled by economists, not psychologists or physicians.

Conventional wisdom in the health profession suggests that mental exercise does you no good at all.  “If you do crossword puzzles, you get better at crossword puzzles,” said Lisa Berkman at Harvard’s Center for Population and Development. “If you do Sudoku, you get better at Sudoku. You get better at one narrow task. But you don’t get better at cognitive behavior in life.”

On the other hand Laura L. Carstensen, at Stanford’s Center on Longevity, commented that the study “suggests that work actually provides an important component of the environment that keeps people functioning optimally.” (See, “Taking Early Retirement May Retire Memory, Too.”)

So we don’t know exactly what to make of this finding. Maybe it’s a statistical anomaly, stemming from the fact that many who retire early do so because they feel their mental powers are fading.  Maybe retirees get more depressed, or watch too much TV.   On the other hand, if work is effective at maintaining cognitive ability, what is it about work that does the trick? Maybe, as Richard Suzman, at the National Institute on Aging, suggests, it’s “the social engagement and interaction of work,” or “the aerobic component.”  Nonetheless, he said, “it’s a strong finding; it’s a big effect.”

A psychologist will think about cognition, an economist about pay and productivity, a specialist on aging about exercise and social interaction.  Perhaps they are all right.  Work is what we do in this world – and not working is a kind of exile, a form of social irrelevance.  For better or worse, it is the way most of us find meaning in our world.  Even those who do not need to work for a living will work as a volunteer or perform some kind of public service.  As a result, for many who seek to retire, the trick is to find post-retirement activities that mimic the stimulation and social connectedness that work can offer.  Some do, many don’t.

I doubt retirement from work is about any one factor. It’s all about staying alive. Unused systems run down, work at lower capacity, or go dormant.  We adapt to our circumstances, day by day, week by week, whether or not we want to.