New research conducted by faculty members at Binghamton University in New York has revealed that early retirement may accelerate cognitive decline.
This finding and more came from an examination of China’s New Rural Pension Scheme (NRPS) as well as the Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Survey (CHARLS) to ascertain how retirement plans impact cognitive performance among participants.
CHARLS is a nationally representative survey of people over the age of 45 in China and specifically tests cognition with an emphasis on episodic memory and facets of unimpaired mental status.
The elderly population has become a significant demographic source in Latin America and Asia due to higher life expectancies and declining fertility rates in developing countries.
Due to this, sustainable new pension systems– like NRPS– were introduced in order to combat poverty in older age.
“In rural parts of the country, traditional family-based care for the elderly had largely broken down without formal mechanisms to take its place. For the elderly, inadequate transfers from either informal family or community transfers could severely reduce their ability to cope with illness or poor nutrition,” explained Plamen Nikolov, one of the study’s authors.
Although, according to the study, these retirement plans may have severe adverse consequences.
The researchers examined administrative government data obtained from the Chinese government regarding the pension program’s implementation.
They were also able to access additional survey data, which outlined the socioeconomic and behavioral characteristics of the new retirement program’s participants.
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And through analyzing this data, Nikolov discovered the program was leading to cognitive decline. The greatest indicator of this was delayed recall– a measure that, in neurobiological research, is widely known to be a critical predictor of dementia.
Interestingly, the researchers also found that females were more negatively affected by the pension program.
Nonetheless, Nikolov believes that the results of this study support the hypothesis that lowered mental activity leads to declining cognitive skills.
In addition, he found that other realms were also negatively influenced– including social engagement, social activities, and mental fitness-associated activities.
“Participants in the program report substantially lower levels of social engagement, with significantly lower rates of volunteering and social interaction than non-beneficiaries. We find that increased social isolation is strongly linked with faster cognitive decline among the elderly,” Nikolov revealed.
On the flip side, the researchers did find that the program improved other health behaviors. For instance, participants in the pension program reported a reduction in regular alcohol consumption as opposed to the previous year.
Still, though, the team is adamant that early retirement’s adverse effects on social and mental engagement largely outweigh the protective effect on different health behaviors.
“Individuals in the areas that implement the NRPS score considerably lower than individuals who live in areas that do not offer the NRPS program,” Nikolov said.
“Over the almost 10 years since its implementation, the program led to a decline in cognitive performance by as high as almost a fifth of a standard deviation on the memory measures we examine.”
So, the fact that retirement may lead to a reduction in cognitive performance is an unexpected and puzzling finding.
At the same time, this discovery is of utmost importance for ensuring the quality of life among elders.
In turn, the researchers are now hopeful that these findings will encourage retirees to adopt a holistic perspective regarding retirement activities. They urge older adults to pay close attention to their social engagement and participation in activities in order to foster mental acuity.
“But we also hope to influence policymakers,” Nikolov added.
“We show robust evidence that retirement has important benefits, but it also has considerable costs. Cognitive impairments among the elderly, even if not severely debilitating, bring about a loss of quality of life and can have negative welfare consequences.”
So, Nikolov has urged policymakers to introduce new policies that work to “buffer” against the reduction of mental activities and social engagement. He believes that by doing so, retirement programs can help “generate positive spillovers” while battling the negative impacts on cognition.
To read the study’s complete findings, which have since been published in Science Direct, visit the link here.
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