Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Work and cognitive health

The two economists call their paper “Mental Retirement,” and their argument has intrigued behavioral researchers. Data from the United States, England and 11 other European countries suggest that the earlier people retire, the more quickly their memories decline.

The implication, the economists and others say, is that there really seems to be something to the “use it or lose it” notion — if people want to preserve their memories and reasoning abilities, they may have to keep active. ...

While not everyone is convinced by the new analysis, published recently in The Journal of Economic Perspectives, a number of leading researchers say the study is, at least, a tantalizing bit of evidence for a hypothesis that is widely believed but surprisingly difficult to demonstrate.

Researchers repeatedly find that retired people as a group tend to do less well on cognitive tests than people who are still working. But, they note, that could be because people whose memories and thinking skills are declining may be more likely to retire than people whose cognitive skills remain sharp. ...

Examining the data from the various countries, Dr. [Bob] Willis and his colleague Susann Rohwedder, associate director of the RAND Center for the Study of Aging in Santa Monica, Calif., noticed that there are large differences in the ages at which people retire. ...

Economic incentives produce the large differences in retirement age, Dr. Rohwedder and Dr. Willis report. Countries with earlier retirement ages have tax policies, pension, disability and other measures that encourage people to leave the work force at younger ages.

The researchers find a straight-line relationship between the percentage of people in a country who are working at age 60 to 64 and their performance on memory tests. The longer people in a country keep working, the better, as a group, they do on the tests when they are in their early 60s.


--Gina Kolata, NYT, on the case against early retirement

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