Can Retiring Early Accelerate Cognitive Decline?

Many people choose to retire early if they have the financial resources to do so. This can be good for us in many ways! Retirement can mean spending more time with loved ones, as well as being able to relax and pursue interests that we didn’t have time for when working. These are all healthy and positive aspects of retirement. However, it’s worth exploring research that tells us something we may not want to hear – that retiring early could potentially accelerate cognitive decline. Let’s take a look at what the research says.

early retirement

The risks of retiring early

According to a study from Binghamton University, early retirement can accelerate cognitive decline. The researchers studied the new pension program in China, which is helping older adults retire earlier than in decades past. The program has led to better physical health for seniors, including better sleep and reduced alcohol consumption. However, it led to worsened cognitive health for many retirees. 

When you think about it, it makes sense that retirement can worsen our cognition. Work has cognitive stimulation built in. In your day-to-day life as a working person, you have to problem solve, think critically, and generally use your brain for much of the day. When you retire, suddenly your brain isn’t stimulated as much.

In the study, the retirees specifically experienced a weakening of their delayed recall skills. Delayed recall refers to the ability to remember information after a period of distraction or rest from that information. For example, remembering what was happening in a tv show you were watching after pausing for a few minutes to make a phone call.

The researchers compared their finding with similar studies in other countries and found similar results – positive impacts to physical health, but negative impacts to cognitive health. The researchers noted that the retirees reported a stark decrease in social engagement after retirement, and this is the most likely culprit of the cognitive decline that so many experienced. 

Of course, this creates a dilemma. We all want the seniors in our communities to live healthy, happy lives. They’ve put hard work in for much of their lives, and they should be able to retire and live more peacefully. However, worsened cognitive health can make life more difficult. So, how do we address the cognitive impacts of retirement?

Preventing cognitive decline in retirement

As the study suggested, maintaining a social life after retirement is of the utmost importance. During our working years, we tend to interact with others a lot and use many other cognitive skills on a daily basis. Many experts have studied the importance of social connection for all ages. It seems that it’s especially important to socialize when you are no longer exercising your cognition through working.

Keeping up with activities that stimulate cognition can keep your mind sharp in retirement as well. This can include hobbies that challenge you such as dancing, group sports, playing an instrument, or reading. 

Having some structure in your day is a great way exercise executive function skills and make sure that you get the stimulation you need for cognitive health. And of course, physical activity is important for overall wellness and cognition as well. So, it’s beneficial if you can work all of these into your day. For example, you could schedule a few sessions of volunteering and a few games of tennis with friends into your week. Then, you’re getting structure, physical activity, and social connection, all of which are stimulating your cognition. This combination can be beneficial for maintaining cognitive health in retirement.

Retirement presents an opportunity to create new routines and explore new interests. If we approach retirement with this in mind, it can help to keep our cognition strong well into old age.

Another way to address cognitive decline is to work with a clinician who can provide cognitive therapy. Clinicians can help seniors exercise cognitive skills such as memory, attention, and executive functioning.


Research shows that retiring early could lead to accelerated cognitive decline. However, once you look further, it seems that this is only in a specific circumstance. As long as retirees are taking care of their cognition through socializing and activities that stimulate cognition, they’re much less likely to experience a stark decrease in cognitive ability. Of course, some level of cognitive decline is normal as you get older. But a healthy mixture of cognitive challenges, physical activity, and socializing seem to be key ingredients for cognitive health and overall wellness in retirement. 

Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

Related Content in Adults,Alzheimer’s Disease,Cognitive Stimulation,Dementia,friendship,Health,Healthy Aging,Seniors

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