Work Longer, Think Longer: Why Your Brain Loves the Economic Crisis

04/08/2014 09:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2014
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Thanks to the economic crisis, the American dream of retirement in our 60s is dead or dying. It is a cold, inevitable calculus: Our retirement accounts aren't fat enough to sustain us for as long as we will live. Employers don't pay as much as they used to, and inflation swallows up what we do save. The writing is on the wall for anyone brave enough to read: Eighty is the new 60.

But is this really that bad of an outcome?

Your brain sees a silver lining. Putting off retirement may put off cognitive decline.
Currently 44 million people worldwide have dementia, and this number is expected to grow considerably in the coming years. Alzheimer's Disease International found that dementia sufferers increased by 17 percent from 2010. Retirement may be one of the culprits contributing to this trend.

The uncomfortable reality is that retirement makes many people dumb. The earlier you retire, the earlier you may put toothpaste on the hairbrush and forget the name of the street on which you live. Just like sitting down all day atrophies your muscles, not working atrophies your brain. Work keeps us mentally sharp.

If you are among those who won't be able to retire at 65, you may like to know that general retirement is a recent invention. It is only in the last century that large numbers of people have accrued enough wealth to finance endless days of sunshine laced with lime-tipped Coronas. For most of human history, we worked as long as we were alive.

Alicia Munnell, the director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, shows that the late 20th century saw retirement becoming common for the majority of the population aged 65 or older. In the 19th century, if you were fortunate enough to survive to 65 and beyond (life expectancy was below 50), you would likely have been working.

The fact that the majority of people 65 and older were gainfully employed suggests that they didn't have dementia despite being at the upper limits of their lifespan. As we reprise the financial circumstances of previous generations, we can take comfort in the notion that work may have been the secret to their long-lived intelligence.

Economists Susan Rohwedder and Robert Willis studied the data of thousands of retirees from the United States and 12 European countries and discovered that retirement marks a reduction in thinking that they call "mental retirement." They write, "Workers engage in more mental exercise than retirees because work provides more cognitively challenging and stimulating environments than do non-work environments."

They compared the cognitive skills of those in their 50s with the cognitive skills of those in their 60s in different countries. They then looked at how early the 60-somethings retired and found that the earlier they did so, the worse their cognitive skills were.

The differences between countries are fascinating. The French, with their early retirement age of 60, have the greatest cognitive decline in the Western world, around 20 percent, when compared with their decade-younger counterparts. By way of comparison, Americans, who retire much later, have a decline of only 5 percent. Thus the American work ethic may yield a cognitive advantage, and by letting it go when we hit retirement, we may do our brains a bad turn.

French scientists are fighting back, however, by looking at how work can improve outcomes. In a groundbreaking study, they determined that the later that people retire past 60, the smaller the chances that they will contract dementia or Alzheimer's, suggesting a clear way forward for its aging population.

If you've ever been out of work for an extended period of time, you probably have a good idea of the effect of putting your brain on cruise control. Not having to impress colleagues, file reports, or use your wits to negotiate office politics, you find yourself struggling to get back in the swing of things when you get back into the job market. Retirement is akin to a perpetual sabbatical with far more adverse consequences.

On the other hand, even if you are able to retire, there is no obligation to submit to the trend... as long as you never truly "retire." Ian Flint, a one-time corporate warrior from South Africa, left his job very early. "I was ... successful and loved it, [but] I pulled the plug at 56." By all accounts he should be at high risk for cognitive decline, yet the opposite is true because of how he approaches retirement: "[M]y wife and I went backpacking for ten years. I scaled Kilimanjaro, walked the Himalayas and a hundred other things. Now aged 71, I still kayak and cycle. ... [E]very day is an adventure and my memory amazes my friends."

By working with travel information and adapting to new environments and cultures, Ian places himself in situations that that give him a mental workout, just like a job: "[I believe that] having younger friends, keeping fit, playing Scrabble, debating, reading newspapers, trawling the Internet and writing extensively has kept a sharp edge on my mind and memory."

As the new economic reality means that many of us will work for longer, there will be other benefits as well. A depleted Social Security fund will be far less catastrophic for a working population and will reduce the burden on younger generations. Less money will be spent on dementia care, which is among the most costly forms of care. There may also be broader health benefits, like a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Giving our brains, bodies, and bank accounts a break by not letting us take a break from work, the economic crisis may actually be a good thing. After all, what's the use of cold beer and extra time with family and friends if dementia makes you unaware of how good you have it?