Does early retirement harm your memory?

Doesn’t everyone have an opinionated relative who says he’ll never retire because he had a friend who retired and then died the next week (month, whatever)?  As much as I look forward to retirement, I sometimes wonder if those who think it isn’t such a good idea might be right.  What will I do with my time?  Perhaps I won’t feel productive.  My brain will turn to mush.  Well thank goodness, someone has done a study to look at just this issue.  Here’s a NY Times article about a study purporting to show that early retirement reduces your memory. 

My first response was, “Wow, someone really designed a study that shows a relationship between working and mental ability!”  But the more I looked at the data in the graph, the more I doubted that this study could say anything.  Admittedly, I’m basing these comments on the graph provided with the New York Times article.  If you are interested in the full study, it is available for free at the Journal of Economic Perspecives’ web site

My first concern is that it is a correlation study.  Anyone who has taken statistics has heard a professor beat into them, “Correlation doesn’t prove cause and effect.”  Just because two things seem to be related doesn’t mean that one causes the other.  The sun comes up about a half hour after I get out of bed every morning, but my getting out of bed does not cause the sun to come up.  The sun coming up doesn’t cause me to get up either, though the fact that the day is beginning is related to the fact that I need to get up and head to work.

In this case the researchers looked at aggregates of two numbers for different countries, how well 60 to 64 year olds did on a simple memory test and what percentage of 60 to 64 year olds were retired in that country.  On average people in countries that had more people still working did better on the memory test.  But if you look closer you will see that this is far from conclusive. 

There are only 13 countries in the analysis and they are scattered all over the plot.  For instance, the Netherlands and Spain had about the same early retirement rate but their scores on the memory test were nearly 30% apart.  Austria and Switzerland had similar scores on the memory test but their early retirement rates are nearly as far apart as any two countries in the study.  You can look at the same plot and say that people in countries further from the equator did better than those in countries nearer to the equator.  Since the study is comparing countries, could there be other factors that might cause this sometimes tenuous relationship?  Perhaps education level, diet, income…  Could you make a similar graph using these other factors? 

What do you think?  Is this study intriguing?  Does work improve your memory?  Or do you think you’d be more intellectually stimulated in other activities?

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6 Comments

Filed under activities, retirement

6 responses to “Does early retirement harm your memory?

  1. You are absolutely correct in pointing out the statistical flaw in this study. Before I retired I owned a marketing and research company. There is a real danger in making studies say what you want them to say through sloppy design, or drawing conclusions that aren’t supported.

    My belief, supported by other studies, reading, personal experience, and feedback on my blog, is that the mental ability of a retired person is very much under his own control. If one is content to just watch TV and play golf ( for example), the mind is going to slip.

    But, if the extra freedom to explore and develop new passions is utilized, mental ability can actually expand and strengthen.

    • ourowntime

      Thanks for stopping by Bob. I agree, to a point. But, in my experience that point is at least biological. The majority of retirees that we know are involved and active – and very smart.

  2. Hi, just found your blog. My first, and most cynical thought is that this is just a con to encourage people to accept later retirement age (call me cynical). I lived in germany for a great many years, and while I did not look at a graph, germans have earlier retirement, less working hours and more vacation and I see no evidence of less active minds. (call me a cynic). I did notice that most scientists are not really impressed. I mean, what about stay at home spouses? Or someone who works on an assembly line? Personally, I had a pretty boring job, and use my mind more than I did then.

    Oh, and traditionally (somones going to hit me for this), countries closer to the equator (at least in the western world) seem to be more relaxed and slower moving to begin with. Think spain vs germany?

    • ourowntime

      Thanks for your comment Barb. I do think that there is a push on for later retirements, at least to reduce the pressures on Social Security. This article was published in an economics journal, so it the data was played with to make the economic point that they wanted to make – in my opinion also. In an epidemiology journal, they would have had a lot of difficulty with the small sample size and sort of weird data maniputlation. Why look at countries instead of individuals? I only included the “close to the equator” comment because I think that the data could be manipulated to say all kinds of odd things. I’m glad to get a little discussion going. Thanks again for joining in. Chris

  3. I’m suspicious of research and researchers. I’m suspicious of Europeans. I’m suspicious of the New York Times. Next topic please.

    • ourowntime

      Hi Ralph – Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my blog. I agree with you that this particular study is not very useful, but I’d think that way whatever news outlet reported on it. It does give us a place to start thinking about the topic. Interestingly, I’ve had substantially more hits on this blog post than any others I’ve posted.

      As to your frustration that I haven’t moved on to another subject, I’m with you there. Unfortunately, I’m just not creative enough to come up with something new to write more often than I have. I’ll get something up soon.

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