Chinese Study Suggests That Retirement Can Speed Up Cognitive Decline

Retirement is a crucial time in life and its effects on health and the brain are not yet well understood. A recent study suggests that retirement accelerates cognitive decline. How true is this?

Old Man Walking

Old Man Walking

Aging is an inevitable process. Over time, our bodies become damaged and tired, and our physical and cognitive abilities decline. But it’s not just biology that dictates the law; environmental, economic, and sociological factors also influence how we age.

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Cognitive decline observed in China

The article in the Journal of Economics Behaviour & Organisation was not written by neurologists. The goal of the study was not to understand the biological phenomena associated with cognitive decline but to understand how policy decisions can promote or limit it. In 2009, the Chinese government introduced the New Rural Pension Scheme (NRPS), a financial support package aimed at reducing poverty among elderly people living in rural areas of the country. It is paid from the age of 60, regardless of whether or not the person is actually retired. By 2021, China will have 261 million people in their 60s. The aging population is not slowing down: some forecasts estimate that the country will have 487 million of them by 2050, or 35% of the Chinese population. It is important, therefore, to take care of them.

While the NRPS has provided economic stability for beneficiaries, economists have noted that it has also contributed to their cognitive decline, especially among women. Memory skills (remembering the past, words, etc.) are particularly affected, and the deterioration appears about four years after starting the program, that is, around age 64.

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“Program participants report significantly lower social engagement, with less volunteering and less social interaction than non-beneficiaries. We found that social isolation is strongly associated with faster cognitive decline among older people. However, we also found that the program promotes certain health-promoting behaviors. Program participants reported drinking less alcohol than in previous years. Overall, the undesirable effects of early retirement on mental health and social engagement outweigh the protective effects on health,” explains Plamen Nikolov, one of the two economists behind the study.

More studies are needed

The very specific context in which this study was conducted makes it difficult to extrapolate its findings to American retirees, for example, especially since the scientific literature does not necessarily agree with them. The topic of cognitive decline upon retirement does not excite researchers. A systematic review published in 2017 by Danish researchers from the National Research Center for the Working Environment could only gather seven relevant studies of varying quality. Their conclusion is more nuanced. Some of the studies reviewed found cognitive decline among retirees, while others did not.

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In short, the evidence is too diverse to form a definitive opinion on the subject. The Danish researchers note that cognitive decline may be more pronounced in people who leave mentally demanding jobs. Activities during retirement may also play a role. There are still too many unknowns.


Do pension benefits accelerate cognitive decline in late adulthood? Evidence from rural China



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