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Experts say it’s important to keep your mind active after you retire. Kelvin Murray/Getty Images
  • Researchers say people who retire early have a higher risk of dementia than those who work longer.
  • They say the “use it or lose it” factor is a primary reason. Brains that are active tend to have more connections and a lower risk of cognitive decline.
  • Experts say people who decide to retire, whatever their age, should have a plan to keep their brain active by attending classes, traveling, and interacting with others.

Early retirement may not be the best idea for those wanting to stay mentally sharp and stave off dementia later in life.

That’s according to a new study from University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Researchers analyzed data from 20,000 people in the United States between the ages 55 and 75. They determined that people waiting until age 67 to retire experience less cognitive decline.

In many ways, the research findings go back to the theory of “use it or lose it.” Though not quite as simple, keeping one’s brain engaged isn’t much different than using muscles to keep them in shape.

Participants in the study took part in a long-running health survey that included standard questions gauging memory and other brain functions. About 45 percent of the subjects were retired.

On average, respondents lost about one point on their cognitive scores between the ages of 61 and 67, which researchers estimated could be delayed by one-third by putting off retirement.

They also concluded the benefit could last for at least 5 years and beyond after retirement. Earlier retirement was linked to faster cognitive decline.

“Brains do operate, to some extent, under the same principle of ‘use it or lose it,’” said Dr. Verna R. Porter, the director of programs for dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and neurocognitive disorders at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “If brain cells are not used, those brain cells tend to lose function.”

Porter said this principle is related to a concept called “cognitive reserve.” The idea is based on a theory that a healthy, high-capacity brain has lots of cognitive reserve and healthy connections between brain cells.

“Brains with low cognitive reserve do not have as many connections between brain cells, which often leads to cell ‘pruning’ and, therefore, fewer active/healthy cells,” Porter told Healthline.

The study didn’t specifically say working longer protects brain cells as much as it concluded that early retirement brings faster cognitive decline.

A number of factors can affect someone’s decision about retirement, including whether they enjoy their job, its level of mental stimulation, how stressful the job is, or how physically taxing it may be.

The problem may be in how we retire, according to Dr. Markesha Miller, a licensed psychotherapist in South Carolina.

“We lack appropriate preparation, therefore shocking our system,” Miller told Healthline. “Many individuals do not understand that retirement falls within the category of those periods in one’s life when grief may be present. Retirement is a loss. It’s a loss of consistency, a major part of one’s identity, their sense of purpose, and requires a major adjustment period.”

“The amount of stress that an individual endures after retirement is at a very high level,” Miller said. “Many individuals subconsciously stress about what their new life will look like. There is a strong correlation between high stress levels and dementia.”

Miller recalled seeing her mother, a teacher who loved her job, decline physically and cognitively about a year after retiring, a process she said eventually led to her mother’s death.

“Those couple of years after retirement for her were miserable and stressful because she felt that she had lost her identity, routine, and purpose,” Miller said.

Those who decide to retire should have a plan, Dr. Clifford Segil, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, told Healthline.

“Retirement with a goal of drinking margaritas and lounging on a beach is an invitation to get memory loss and dementia,” Segil said. “Retirement with a goal of taking an interesting class you have always wanted or plans to travel to new and exciting places and start hiking or exercising, is protective to dementia.”

In other words, keep moving and keep learning, he said.

“What we do wrong with retirement, from a brain’s standpoint, is lose structure in life,” Segil said. “Working provides structure and constant excitation and stimulation, and in retirement this structure can be provided by groups, classes, and activities.”