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A Benefit of Working Longer: Keeping Your Brain Sharp

Research shows cognitive benefits for delaying retirement, with two caveats


To the question “Does working past the traditional retirement age keep you mentally sharp?” the answer was a qualified “yes” among several scholars attending the recent 2017 Age Boom Academy at Columbia University in early June. (I’ll get to the caveats later.)

Intriguing evidence that work helps boost cognitive health among older adults is another critical reason for policymakers and managers to tear down cultural and organizational barriers to longer work lives.

Working Longer and Dementia

Work may even help stave off dementia. A large study of nearly half a million self-employed workers in France suggests that delaying retirement means people may be at less risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

What is it about work that keeps the brain nimble?

Work often gives people a sense of purpose in life, a boon to well-being and mental health. The workplace is a social environment, a community with colleagues and coworkers. You must communicate with people to do your job, while still finding time for gossip, the lifeblood of any organization. You have tasks to accomplish and, much of the time, even routine jobs require learning new software programs, shifts in schedules and meeting new hires.

What Work Makes You Do

“The work environment places demands on people,” said Michael Hurd, director of the RAND Center for the Study of Aging, to journalists and scholars at Age Boom Academy. “You have to socially interact. You’re forced to be there. People are forced to engage.”

Scholars specializing in aging and retirement had long assumed work had negative effects on the health of older adults, including high stress and physical exhaustion. Retirement — withdrawing completely from the labor force — was understandably believed to be beneficial for health.

But thanks to the combination of increased longevity and better-educated populations, a cottage industry of scholars tapping into large databases in Europe, the United Kingdom and the U.S. are finding positive effects of later retirement on memory and mental processing speeds.

The ‘Mental Retirement’ Study

Among those studies is Mental Retirement, a 2010 paper by economists Susann Rohwedder of RAND and Robert Willis of the University of Michigan (both were at Age Boom Academy). Looking at data from the U.S., England and 11 European countries, they concluded that retirement had a significant negative impact on the cognitive ability of people in their early 60s. They speculate that retirement can lead to a less stimulating daily environment. The researchers also wonder if people nearing retirement are less mentally engaged in their jobs.

In other words, there’s wisdom in the expression “use it or lose it.” (What famed detective Hercule Poirot called the “little grey cells.”)

Brain Functions That Improve With Age

Science these days is moving away from the bleak image of aging as an inevitable process of brain damage and decline. Researchers have discovered that an aging brain compensates for declines in some capabilities with improvements in others.

For example, although older workers typically process information more slowly than their younger peers, other functions — such as semantic memory, language and speech — improve with age. (Semantic memory captures things that are common knowledge, such as the names of colors, the capitals of countries and other basic facts acquired over a lifetime.) Older workers have more expertise and tend to build stronger relationships.

Perhaps Keith Richards, the 73-year-old legendary guitarist for The Rolling Stones, put it best: “You don’t stop growing until they shovel the dirt in.”

‘Aren’t You Supposed to Be Retired?’

I imagine Monte Clausen, a lawyer just shy of his 76th birthday, concurs with that judgment. Clausen was a civil litigator in private practice in Tucson until 1989 when he joined the U.S. Attorney’s office there. He has been working out of the criminal division since 2003 on immigration cases. “I get asked daily, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be retired?’” laughs Clausen. “My stock answer is: ‘So long as they want me, I’ll keep coming.”

Clausen talks with affection about the people in his local legal community — judges, court personal and fellow U.S. attorneys. He’s mentored some of the young lawyers he works with and, he emphasizes, gleans knowledge from them. “I learn new stuff every day,” says Clausen. “I love my job.”

The 2 Caveats About Working Longer and the Brain

Okay, what about the caveats?

One qualification about working longer being good for the brain is that the research doesn’t show cause and effect. It isn’t easy disentangling whether people with better cognition are migrating into more complex jobs or whether those activities protect cognition.

“Continuing to work is probably a good thing for a lot of reasons, with cognition maybe being one, but social connectivity and finances being more compelling reasons,” says Neil Charness, director of the Institute for Successful Longevity at Florida State University. “That is, continuing to work is probably a good thing assuming that you enjoy what you are doing.”

Which leads to the second caveat: The positive cognitive benefits from work are strongest among people in jobs that require education and exercising judgment, such as lawyers, consultants and teachers. The cognitive demands of the assembly line, clerks at big-box checkout counters and other low-skill, repetitious jobs are far less.

“If you have a job where you must solve problems, the mind will be stimulated and you’ll come up with new things,” says Catherine Sullivan, professor of occupational science and occupational therapy at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn.

Keeping Work Interesting Helps

That said, scholars have found that even workers with routine jobs can enjoy mental returns on the job if their employer introduces variety and training to what they do. For instance, in studies of older workers’ productivity at a Mercedes Benz truck factory and a large German insurance company, economist Axel Borsch-Supan and colleagues at the Munich Center for the Economics of Aging found that older factory workers were as productive as their younger peers. Productivity fell, however, among older workers at the insurer who did the same dull job year in, year out — opening envelopes.

Proof that keeping work interesting keeps workers productive: a 2017 research paper by eight scholars, including Ursula Staudinger, director of the Robert N. Butler Aging Center at Columbia University. In Don’t Lose Your Brain at Work — The Role of Recurrent Novelty at Work in Cognitive and Brain Aging, the scholars studied middle-aged production workers across a 17-year time span at one manufacturer. Through a variety of cognitive tests, along with MRIs on some workers, bringing “novelty” into the job (learning new skills and tasks) was associated with improved mental processing speed and working memory.

So let’s focus on building all kinds of work options for older employees, from semi-retirement programs to flexible and part-time work schedules. And employers: train those workers to keep their skills current and to keep the employees engaged with their jobs. That’s a smart way to rev up the brain’s performance among older individuals and raise the cognitive capacities of the nation.

Chris Farrell
By Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author
 of the new book, Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life.@cfarrellecon

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