Diversions: Use it or Lose it

In a recently released study called, “Mental Retirement,” researchers found a link between the age at which a population retires and the population’s cognitive skills capacity.

The link suggests that the earlier people retire, the sooner their memories begin to decline.  This latest piece of evidence bolsters the commonly believed – but difficult to prove – hypothesis that says in order to maintain strong cognitive skills, one must actively engage their mind in daily activities.  And in retirement, intellectual engagements tend to go by the wayside.   

Memory test results were compared from surveys done in the U.S., England, and 11 other European countries.  Participants were told 10 nouns and asked to recall them immediately.  Then for about five minutes, researchers asked the participants other random questions.  After about five minutes, participants were asked to recall the 10 nouns again.  A perfect score would be 20 if all the nouns were recollected.   

People in the United States did best, with an average score of 11. Denmark and England participants were close behind, with scores just above 10.  The average score in Italy was around 7, in France it was 8, and in Spain it was a little more than 6.

While analyzing the data, researchers found that the countries with better scores on the memory test also had an older age of retirement, on average.   The majority of men in the U.S., England, and Denmark (between 65%-70%), were still working in their early 60s.  But in France, Italy, and Spain, less than 40% of men were still working into their 60s.

The link is not without its skeptics of course.  There are other differences besides average age of retirement in each of the countries that can affect cognitive skills.  In countries with more disability support and pension plans, people are more likely to retire earlier than in countries where finances play a major role in determining when one can retire.

Nevertheless, the study will open the door to many more related studies – such as, what is it about the work environment that can keep memory sharp?  Does the degree of intellectual difficulty matter, or is simply interacting with colleagues key?  But at least this study provides a silver lining for the many Americans who are facing the realization that retirement might not come as soon as they hoped.   

To read complete results of the survey, click here.