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Does Working After Retirement Improve Mood and Cognition?

Connection and engagement can be casualties of leaving the job force, but both are necessary to your well-being.

A happy retiree at work.

It goes without saying that retirement brings changes. Some can be enormously positive, while others can be tricky. When the working world you’ve known seemingly vanishes into thin air, you may be surprised by the multitude of emotional twists and turns that can greet you on the other side. Excitement and relief might mix with confusion, depression or even grief. You may feel stuck, or you may find yourself embarking on new paths of learning and forming new contacts—virtual or otherwise. If the latter is the case, you’re doing your brain a favor, as there is evidence that the loss of connection and engagement that can accompany retirement can adversely affect cognitive functioning, as well as mood.

There seems to be a consensus among researchers that staying actively engaged—with others as well as with meaningful endeavors—is a big key to post-retirement emotional well-being. However, it’s not so easy to make a sweeping statement on how retirement affects mood and cognition. The simple answer is that it’s complicated.

Faculty researchers at Binghamton University examined the effects of retirement and pension benefits in various spots in the world, and were surprised to find that although these things resulted in positive health benefits, they also led to reduced cognitive performance.

“‘While pension benefits and retirement were found to lead to improved health, these programs also induced a stark and much more negative influence on other dimensions: social activities, activities associated with mental fitness and social engagement more broadly,’” Plamen Nikolov, one of the researchers, said in an article on the study published by ScienceDaily. “‘Or alternatively, the kinds of things that matter and determine better health might simply be very different than the kinds of things that matter for better cognition among the elderly. Social engagement and connectedness may simply be the single most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age.’”

Another study, published by the European Journal of Epidemiology, tested the hypothesis that a lack of mentally challenging activities associated with retirement might exacerbate the loss of cognitive function. “In support of the ‘use it or lose it’ hypothesis, we found that retirement is associated with faster declines in verbal memory function over time, but has little impact on other domains of cognitive functions, such as abstract reasoning and verbal fluency,” according to the researchers. They also found that higher employment grade work had a protective effect against verbal memory decline while people were still working, but that the effect was lost after they retired. This “points to the potential benefits of cognitively stimulating activities associated with employment that could benefit older people’s memory,” they wrote.

The challenge is to find the right job, as work that engages and positively stimulates you might simply stress out someone else, or leave them cold. “[T]he ideal condition is to be employed whereby there is an optimal arousal and high level of interest with moderate consequences (e.g., good income, meaningful work),” the Alabama researchers noted. “In fact, the psychological concept of ‘flow’ is exemplified at this peak where one’s abilities and interests match those of the task demands.”

Multiple factors— including your health and that of your family members, finances, caregiving responsibilities, building structure into your day, satisfying your particular interests, exercise, diet and adequate rest—all contribute to psychological and physical well-being in retirement. But it’s also vital to remain connected and engaged.

In their book The Psychology of Retirement (excerpted by The British Psychological Society website, https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/retirement-health-and-wellbeing), social researchers and retired academics Doreen Rosenthal and Susan Moore advise: “Stay active and involved. Whether it’s organised sports or activities, or taking long walks on your own, it’s important to keep moving.” Learning new things can help to maintain your level of cognitive functioning, they wrote. “Importantly, maintain social connections. Try to banish loneliness. Your relationships with people can help you live longer. Nurture your friendships and family ties. If you are away from friends and family, think about making social connections in other ways such as through volunteering.”

Of course, if you are unable to connect with others in person due to Covid-19 restrictions, you can do so online or virtually, for the time being. Either way, keep in mind that volunteering is a great way to protect your own mental and physical health. In fact, any work that helps others can be a good way to boost your own well-being.
One possible way to do this would be working as an in-home caregiver to an older adult with dementia or another chronic health condition. Caregivers receive on-going job training that enables them to provide companion care in a variety of important ways. (Make sure to discuss with an agency you are considering working for their on-going safety protocols for Covid-19.) The job can make a big difference in someone’s life. And in addition to providing yourself with meaningful work and connection, you might also help another retiree—perhaps a devoted family caregiver who needs a bit of a break—to have a more satisfying and peaceful post-work life. 

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