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Retirement Is One Of Life’s Major Transitions — Maintaining Cognitive Health Can Make It Easier
August 15, 2022
Research has shown a connection between the early stages of retirement and cognitive decline, and studies indicate that retirement can exacerbate a number of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. However, creative outlets and other stimulating activities can help keep the mind sharp.
In this article by Forbes Health, Robby Brumberg explores what often happens to a person’s cognitive and mental health in early retirement—and how retirees might avoid the pitfalls that often accompany this transition.
Retirement Is One Of Life’s Major Transitions — Maintaining Cognitive Health Can Make It Easier
Humans are hardwired for purpose. Whether it’s found through education, a job or contributing to the well-being of family and friends, the need to feel like a productive, essential member of a community is a natural part of life. For many, this sense of fulfillment and belonging is shaped by a career—often to the point that work becomes inextricably tied to a person’s identity and sense of self-worth. But what happens when we retire?
Research shows a connection between the early stages of retirement and cognitive decline, and numerous studies indicate that retirement can exacerbate a slew of mental health challenges, including anxiety and depression. However, creative hobbies and other stimulating activities can accomplish the opposite effect, reducing risk of dementia as they help keep the mind sharp. Maintaining strong personal and social connections makes a difference, too.
To help those on the brink of this daunting shift, Forbes Health explored what tends to happen to a person’s cognitive and mental health in early retirement—and how retirees might avoid the pitfalls that often accompany this transition. Yes, it’s possible to grasp that elusive triad of fulfillment, happiness and contentment after a career ends and to stave off mental decline—it just takes some preparation, commitment and perhaps a fresh perspective.
+ Use It or Lose It: Mental Acuity After Retirement
It’s not uncommon for new retirees to feel suddenly adrift. Without the grounding structure and social bonds of work, retirement can be a jarring season of life. In fact, according to a June 2022 Forbes Health survey of more than 1,000 recent retirees conducted by OnePoll, 32% of respondents said they wished they’d kept working longer in their careers. Another 32% admitted they didn’t feel well prepared for the day-to-day realities of retirement.
After walking away from the built-in stimulation of work (as well as the financial stability that comes with a steady job), new retirees run the risk of expedited cognitive decline. A 2017 study that tracked several essential cognitive functions of nearly 3,500 participants before and after retirement found “all domains of cognition declined over time.” What’s more, verbal memory specifically declined 38% faster after retirement than before retirement.
The brain is a “use it or lose it” kind of organ, according to Patricia Heyn, founding director of the Center for Optimal Aging at Marymount University and Forbes Health Advisory Board member. Without a job or career to focus on, and without a daily routine or scheduled events, it can be all too easy to let cognitive prowess wither. “Post-retirement is a very important stage of life,” says Heyn, adding that spending later years more meaningfully hinges on good habits built in early retirement. “To live those 30 years [after retirement] with joy and dignity, it starts with a healthy transition after our careers,” she says.
And though retirement might feel eons away, it could be closer than you think. In 2021 the average retirement age was 62, according to Gallup’s annual economy and personal finance survey. Meanwhile, Pew Research reports 50.3% of U.S. adults aged 55 and older were out of the labor force due to retirement by the end of the third quarter of 2021.
Average life expectancy in the U.S. is close to 80 years, which leaves plenty of time for most people to establish new routines, habits and rhythms after the close of their careers. Thus, it’s essential to keep an open mind and try new things after retirement, according to Linda Keilman, a gerontological nurse, associate professor and Forbes Health Advisory Board member. “Being flexible and willing to try new activities or adventures presents a sense of wonder in seeing or doing things not tried before,” she says. Any number of hobbies or activities can help keep your mind sharp, she adds. The important thing is to keep trying new things until you find something that makes you happy—and when that passion fades, move on to a new hobby.
Of course, activities are just one part of sustaining mental acuity. Research reveals that in addition to participating in engaging activities, certain lifestyle changes or adaptations can support cognitive health as we age as well, such as prioritizing sleep, relationships and exercise while limiting alcohol and smoking.
Fortunately, data reveals recent retirees seem to be doing a good job of keeping at it, as 80% of survey respondents say they’re taking active steps to maintain their cognitive health. But risks remain when these priorities fall by the wayside.
+ Retirement and the Risk of Cognitive Decline
The average person’s mental acuity—sharpness or ability to perceive—tends to peak around age 30, according to University of California San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center. From that point forward, most people experience a subtle decline with age, often marked by difficulty with memory, multitasking and overall motor skills. Early retirement can accelerate this downward trajectory—especially for those who found deep meaning in their careers, according to Amanda Smith, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and Forbes Health Advisory Board member.
“In my experience, the people who define themselves by their jobs and have few interests outside of work often struggle [in retirement] more than others, so it’s crucial for people to find other meaningful ways to feel important,” says Dr. Smith.
Retirees who fail to find a healthy post-career routine may notice some mental faculties slipping, though not every “senior moment” is cause for alarm. For those concerned about monitoring symptoms or possible signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, keep an eye on the following factors:
• Getting lost in familiar places
• Repetitive questioning
• Odd or inappropriate behaviors
• Forgetfulness of recent events
• Repeated falls or loss of balance
• Personality changes
• Decline in planning and organization abilities
• Changes in diet and eating habits
• Changes in hygiene
• Increased apathy
• Changes in language abilities, including comprehension
Meanwhile, it’s possible to maintain some control over how quickly cognitive health shifts. For instance, research shows at least half of Alzheimer’s cases can be attributed to “modifiable” risk factors, such as:
• Type 2 diabetes
• High blood pressure
• Midlife obesity
• Little or no mental activity
• Little or no physical exercise
Of course, staying active, connected and in hot pursuit of fulfillment are within a person’s control, too. But some factors, such as geography and culture, might be harder for some retirees to overcome.
+ Going It Alone: A Uniquely American Problem
In many parts of the world, it’s common for older people to live in close proximity to—and often under the same roof with—family members and close relatives. In fact, Pew research suggests that living with an extended circle of relatives is the most common type of household arrangement for older people worldwide.
Senior living looks quite different in the U.S. Another Pew study reports that older U.S. adults are far more likely to live alone or with only a spouse or partner than extended family. What’s more, older people are more likely to live alone in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world.
For instance, 50% of older adults in the Asia-Pacific region live in an extended family household while only 6% of older adults in the U.S. claim the same arrangement. Meanwhile, 27% of U.S. adults age 60 and over live alone, according to Pew’s research.
This data highlights that while older U.S. adults may have plenty of independence, such living arrangements leave many without the safety net of having loved ones close by as they age. It also presents potential problems of isolation and loneliness, which are linked to cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and a slew of other health problems.
+ Practical Ways to Stay Sharp After Retirement
Though it may be challenging—and even frightening—to consider the possibility of cognitive deterioration after retirement, there are ways to prepare and help prevent swift declines.
+ Talk to Someone
Sometimes even small conversations can make a big difference. “Often people struggle in silence,” says Dr. Smith. “If people are hesitant to share their feelings with loved ones or they don’t have anyone they’re close with, speaking to a therapist can be very helpful.” In fact, cognitive behavioral therapy can be particularly effective for people who may be in need of guidance but feel uncomfortable speaking with friends or family, she adds, as it can help someone rethink the way they look at themselves.
Regardless of who you speak with or what you chat about, the important thing is to connect on a personal, emotional level, says Heyn. Conversations can forge meaningful connectivity while simultaneously giving the brain a healthy workout, she explains. Research shows that even “small talk” offers a multitude of brain-enriching benefits. Chats have the power to boost the production of endorphins and dopamine, which can fuel joy and peace of mind.
+ Recapture Childhood Joy
Retirement is a new phase of life, and Heyn suggests taking some time to look backward in order to move forward. Remember what mothers often tell their children, she says: “Play, exercise, find groups, eat healthy and find social networks where you can meet people and not be alone.” She also emphasizes the need for movement, adding that you don’t need a gym or weights, but you “must stay active to maintain independence.”
Keilman echoes this advice: “Think like a kid again,” she says. “Laugh, play and have fun. Do things that bring you joy and happiness.”
Interestingly, 64% of survey respondents reported picking up a new hobby or trying to learn something new since retiring, which opens a world of playful possibilities. And play, it turns out, can be a powerful force for good. Playful games might seem frivolous, but they can improve mood, increase socialization and even help sharpen cognitive function. Research shows video games specifically can improve memory, and board games are proven to help keep cognitive decline at bay.
+ Maintain Your Brain
We often treat our minds as an afterthought, but brains merit top billing in terms of body maintenance.
“No matter where you are in your life, maintaining brain health is job number one,” says Keilman. Staying social, getting plenty of sleep, exercising and being mindful of nutrition all play a role in brain health, but attempting activities that force the mind to think in different ways helps as well. Keilman offers examples like jigsaw puzzles, word searches, crossword puzzles, Sudoku puzzles, diamond painting, learning to play an instrument, learning a new language, dancing, singing, meditating and practicing tai chi. Sharing skills and teaching a friend or family member about an area of interest you enjoy is another engaging option.
You must work your brain just like you exercise muscles, says Heyn, adding that learning new information “builds new cells and tissues.” Socializing with new people is great for the brain, too, she says.
As for a healthy, brain-bolstering diet, the National Institute on Aging recommends limiting sugar and salt while prioritizing fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish and lean protein. Meanwhile, researchers say seven hours of sleep per night is the magic number needed to preserve cognitive health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends logging 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.
+ Support Your Self-Worth
The disabilities and need for assistance as you age can wear on a person’s sense of self-esteem, says Heyn. Her advice to lift and sustain it: Do activities that make you feel good physically and emotionally, such as teaching a swim class, mentoring a younger person or starting a walking club.
For those who derived much of their self-worth and identity from their careers, maintaining post-retirement self-esteem may prove challenging. This struggle makes it even more essential that recent retirees think proactively and positively about themselves and reflect upon accomplishments, as well as find new activities that bolster self-esteem, says Heyn.
To help boost a loved one’s self-esteem, ask for their opinions, guidance, feedback and advice on a multitude of matters, big or small. Tapping into someone’s life experience can often be beneficial for both parties—you may find yourself coming away with valuable insights.
+ Give Back
Volunteering is a great way to carry your purpose and sense of meaning throughout your life, says Keilman, though just 22% of survey respondents report focusing on volunteer activities since retiring.
Keilman suggests possibilities like delivering food for Meals on Wheels, tutoring children or serving as a foster grandparent. And regardless of the volunteer opportunities you choose, “smile, take yourself lightly and enjoy the simple things in life by just paying more attention to your environment,” she adds.
Communities, schools, nonprofits and other entities are often open to receiving help from retirees. “You could help with schools and in classrooms,” says Heyn. “You can help fight climate change by helping with community gardens and helping reduce waste. We’re lacking that presence, but [retirees] are lacking the support and community champions who can empower and mobilize them.”
Those with more limited mobility can find ample opportunities to help, too, whether through virtual tutoring or mentoring, supporting a political campaign or fulfilling a crucial business function of a preferred charitable organization. Whatever activity you choose, data shows older volunteers can reap real health benefits (such as lower rates of depression and better cognitive health) from such involvement.
If you’re not sure where to start, AmeriCorps offers a list of volunteering ideas, and VolunteerMatch—a database that lists a wide range of volunteer opportunities and possibilities—can provide inspiration as well.
+ Prioritize Exercise
When it comes to cognitive health, it’s no exaggeration that mind and body are connected, and you can reap an abundance of benefits from keeping your body moving.
“The most overwhelming body of evidence points to aerobic exercise as the most helpful in preventing cognitive decline,” says Dr. Smith. “Not everyone has the physical ability to run on a treadmill or take an aerobics class, but people can do simple things like use foot pedals while they’re sitting and watching television or do a chair aerobics class on YouTube.”
The type of exercise you do doesn’t have to be daunting, either. An activity as simple as taking a walk—especially in nature—can work wonders for your mind and mental state.
For those who might need a bit of motivation to get moving, Keilman suggests trying a program like SilverSneakers or another program featuring exercises designed by or for older adults with supportive instructors. She says some health insurance plans (such as Medicare) offer similar programs as a coverage benefit.
According to survey results, 49% of respondents have focused on fitness activities since retiring, such as going to the gym, walking or practicing yoga. Meanwhile, 12% say they’ve started playing a sport like golf, tennis or pickleball, and 31% have taken to outdoor activities like hiking, fishing or bike riding.
+ Create a Bucket List
Everyone has at least one thing they’ve always wanted to do or learn. “So go out there and do things,” says Keilman. This opportunity is one of the great pleasures of living, she adds. “We have another day to grow, learn and add a new skill or interest to our life story.”
Not sure where to start? “Find people or groups with common interests,” suggests Heyn. “You must be adventurous and take a leap toward what you’ve always dreamed of,” she adds.
While every bucket list looks different, some ideas may include traveling, making a donation, learning a new skill or language, growing a garden, purchasing a “dream” item (such as a classic car) or perhaps repairing a broken relationship. No matter the dream, take strides (even if they’re small or incremental) toward accomplishing what inspires, motivates or moves you, says Heyn.
+ Stay Balanced
Just as work-life balance is important to practice during a career, it’s equally important to maintain balance in everyday life during retirement. To establish healthy post-career habits, Dr. Smith suggests getting regular exercise, staying mentally and socially active, eating a healthy Mediterranean-style diet, reducing stress through meditation and other means, prioritizing sleep and staying on top of medical concerns like diabetes and high blood pressure.
+ Think About Easy Access
Even if you’re in great shape right now, it’s essential to plan ahead and consider a day when your mobility might decline, says Heyn. People should plan accordingly by considering factors, such as walkability, lighting and proximity to essential services and family members, in regards to their living space.
“Consider the social determinants of health of where you live,” says Heyn, emphasizing the necessity of prioritizing access to essential, everyday needs.
Even if you’re in the early years of retirement, you may want to consider your proximity to family members, the grocery store, the pharmacy or perhaps a special restaurant you hold dear.
+ Plan Robustly
While it’s certainly not the only aspect of retirement that merits consideration, thorough financial preparation is essential. In fact, 36% of survey respondents listed financial concerns as the most difficult part of retirement thus far, significantly outweighing the next most common concern, which 14% cited as a lack of routine and/or daily structure.
“The happiest people are often the ones who have started planning early for retirement, who worked with their partner or spouse to prepare and have learned skills, hobbies or interests that can occupy their time when they aren’t going to work every day,” says Keilman.
However, don’t fret if you feel late to the retirement planning game. For those who weren’t able to plan for retirement early on, it’s never too late to start—and there’s plenty of help available. Banks, nonprofits and local aging agencies can point you toward free or reduced cost financial planning services, and the National Council on Aging hosts a website that lists more than 2,500 benefits and resources to which many retirees may have access.
Other ideas to facilitate that post-career transition include joining an existing retirement support group or creating your own, and getting involved with an organization like Encore.org or the Transition Network to start writing your next chapter.
Anything from podcasting to pickleball to Pictionary can help you stay sharp. Whatever you choose, commit to becoming a lifelong learner, explorer and doer to help make retirement an enjoyable experience—and one where your cognitive health remains intact.
+ Where to Seek Help for Cognitive Health
If you suspect your own cognitive health is slipping, Keilman suggests speaking with your primary care provider, who can ask evidence-based questions and evaluate your answers for clues as to how things are working in the brain.
“If memory loss is interfering with [your] daily life, you can get a referral to a neurologist who can provide a thorough assessment,” says Keilman. “Testing like an MRI of the brain with and without contrast gives pictures of the brain to see what’s happening. Lab work can determine if there are any reversible causes of memory loss, such as an undiagnosed thyroid condition or a vitamin deficiency.”
From there, neuropsychological testing can help provide a sense of cognitive and emotional functioning not obtained through other diagnostic means. This type of testing also helps doctors distinguish psychological or neurological conditions that can affect memory, adds Keilman.
Family history plays an important role, too. If there’s a history of memory loss or dementia in the family, that pattern could be at play, says Keilman. “However, testing and assessments must be performed to rule out reversible causes and organic or metabolic changes.”
Again, the earlier you seek treatment and assessment, the better, stresses Keilman.
+ How Family Members Can Support Recent Retirees
According to survey results, 73% of respondents feel well supported by family and friends since retirement. But what does that support entail, and how can loved ones be more supportive?
Family members and friends can play a key role in a person’s transition to retirement, and approaching the situation with empathy, patience and understanding is essential. “Oftentimes, retirees are hesitant to ‘bother’ children or grandchildren because of busy work and school schedules,” says Dr. Smith, and this tendency can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. “It’s important for younger family members to recognize this reluctance and reach out. Keeping retirees engaged, visiting them and including them in milestones or sporting events is often very meaningful,” she adds.
Loved ones who want to be supportive don’t need to go overboard with ideas or activities. Sometimes, just being intentional about having conversations, connecting and discussing current events can do wonders, says Heyn, who also suggests teaching retirees how to use technology, soliciting their advice, playing new games with them and encouraging them to share stories from their youth.
However, it’s vital to seek out activities both parties enjoy. ”Inter-generational connectivity is so important, but you must find ties that bind and common interests,” says Heyn.
+ Responding to Signs of Cognitive Decline
If you do suspect a retired loved one is struggling in their transition to retirement, don’t wait to act—and be sure to include them in the conversation. “The first step would be to tell someone, be it a family member or their primary care doctor,” says Dr. Smith.
Unfortunately, concerns can sometimes be ignored or ascribed as a normal part of aging, she warns, encouraging people to seek help if they feel something is wrong or notice signs of cognitive decline, including memory loss, difficulty with language or struggling with decision making.
“Gently broach the subject [with your loved one] in a way that’s not overtly critical,” adds Dr. Smith. “Some people have probably already noticed [signs] themselves and will be grateful for the confirmation and support. Others will absolutely deny that anything is wrong; in those cases, you can sometimes get them to be assessed under the guise that it’s a ‘baseline’ or ‘prevention’ evaluation. If you see that they’re struggling with certain activities, offer to help them.”
Respect is key here as well, according to Heyn, who also encourages younger family members to act sooner than later if they suspect cognitive decline in a loved one. “Be observant in respectful ways,” she says. “And be aware of genetics and context. It could be another secondary condition, such as stress, depression, medication or lack of sleep.”
If cognitive difficulty is chronically impacting your loved one’s daily life, it’s time to contact a professional, says Heyn. But before doing so, bring it to their attention in a loving and compassionate way first, even if it’s likely to be a difficult conversation.
Before starting that conversation, you might also ask other caregivers or family members to confirm your suspicions. If you do consider other opinions, Heyn says a geriatrician can help with a cognitive evaluation. From there, you can seek more specialized treatment as needed.
“Just activate the process,” says Heyn. “You’ll end up in the right place.”
+ How Society Can Better Support Recent Retirees
As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” but something similar could be said for successfully supporting the recently retired.
Employers often focus on helping employees save money for retirement, but what about other aspects of retirement preparation?
“Offering counseling as people start to plan their retirement could help prevent that sudden feeling of being lost when one’s career ends and allow people to explore what types of activities might bring them fulfillment in their later years,” says Dr. Smith. Volunteer or mentorship opportunities can be valuable for recent retirees, too, considering how a person’s life experience and wisdom can often enrich the lives of others, she adds.
Dr. Smith also suggests employers further help their retirees by offering assistance at home when necessary. People frequently need help at home but can’t afford home companion services (which aren’t typically covered by traditional insurance). Many seniors are on a limited budget but are well above the threshold where they would be able to receive such services for free through government and nonprofit programs.
Another gap employers could fill is to offer long-term care insurance as a benefit of employment, adds Dr. Smith, which would help employees afford more intensive levels of daily care should they need it as they age.
More communities, schools, nonprofits and other entities can also benefit from tapping into their local retiree talent pools. “They could help with schools and in classrooms,” says Heyn. “They can help fight climate change by helping with community gardens and helping reduce waste. We’re lacking that presence, but they’re lacking the support and community champions who can empower and mobilize them.”
Companies and organizations hoping to reach people in early retirement shouldn’t wait for them to show up organically. Instead, Heyn recommends companies court retirees politely, welcoming their feedback, insights and experience. “So many would welcome a challenge or task,” she adds.
+ The Role of Education and Recognition in Uplifting Retirees
Spearheading incremental change in terms of how we treat retirees and older adults starts with education, which may require intentional shifts in education policy, practice and curricula.
“We should teach about normal aging starting in junior high school—around the same time kids receive sex education,” says Keilman. “We learn about maturing and having babies, but nothing about how we age.” Covering such topics at an early age might help “normalize” the notion of healthy aging, she says, whereas most people only hear about aging in “negative constructs.”
Enhancing societal support for retirees can be achieved through basic recognition as well. Just as younger people crave recognition, validation and respect in academic and professional settings, retirees need those things, too.
“Older adults have value and worth and make a contribution to life, and that includes improving quality of life for all of us,” says Keilman. It’s important to recognize and appreciate that contribution, she adds.
+ Happy, Healthy Living in Retirement and Beyond
There’s no foolproof formula to finding fulfillment at any stage in life, much less as we age or navigate the uncertainty of potentially jarring life events like retirement. But there are plenty of reasons to hope for bright days ahead. Nearly 40% of survey respondents say retirement has at least “somewhat positively” affected their cognitive health thus far, and none report retirement “very negatively” affecting their cognitive health.
What’s the secret? Connectivity is perhaps one of the best defenses against cognitive decline, according to Harvard University’s Study of Adult Development. This longitudinal study, which followed two groups of men over the last 80 years, found close relationships (more than money or fame) to be what keeps people happy throughout their lives. Close bonds shield people from life’s difficulties and can help delay mental and physical decline, researchers found,adding that relationships are stronger predictors of happy lives than social class, intelligence or genetics.
They further reported that those with strong social support tend to experience less mental deterioration as they age. And, perhaps most importantly, the researchers found that excellent relationships bolster our bodies—and our brains.
Aside from staying connected with family and friends, the Harvard study offers specific guidance for maximizing healthy mental and physical aging, culled from more than 80 years of lived experience data and candid feedback from study participants. The tips include pursuing and prioritizing your hobbies or passions, volunteering and consistently performing acts of kindness, spending time with happy and supportive people, and taking time to appreciate the good things in your life.
Of course, there are no guarantees or surefire ways to ward off cognitive decline, whether in early retirement or any other phase of life. However, the notion of spending as much of your time as possible doing what brings you joy—among people and places that also bring you joy—offers a pretty solid framework for a happy, healthy life. Thankfully, that’s a mindset anyone can grasp and adopt at any time.
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Robby Brumberg - Editor
Alena Hall - Editor
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