If You Rest, You Rust

It’s hard to think of an early retirement as anything other than a positive. Who wouldn’t want to trade in their suit and tie for a pair of golf/beach shorts? While retiring ahead of schedule may be easier on the body, a new set of research has found that it may not be so beneficial for the mind.

New York’s Binghamton University compared retirees over the age of 60 with their counterparts still in the workforce and found that retirement can lead to an accelerated rate of cognitive decline. The results support the hypothesis that decreased mental activity leads to decreased mental ability. In other words, If you rest, you rust.”

The research team analyzed China’s “New Rural Pension Scheme” (NRPS), as well as China’s most recent “Retirement Longitudinal Survey” (CHARLS), in order to investigate the effects of early retirement and pension benefits on individual cognition among adults over the age of 60. For reference, CHARLS is a representative national survey of China’s population over the age of 45 that tests respondents regarding mental cognition, episodic memory, and overall mental well-being.

Life expectancy rates in China have steadily “increased” over the past few decades, coinciding with a “decline” in fertility. These two trends have resulted in a large elderly population in China, subsequently creating an urgent need for more robust pension programs.

After going over all of the data, the research team noted a clear trend: “individuals receiving pension benefits were experiencing much more rapid mental decline than their counterparts still on the workforce.”

The most prominent indicator of mental decline among retirees was delayed recall, a trait widely considered to be an accurate predictor of dementia. Surprisingly, females seemed to experience even sharper mental decline after retiring early. Overall, the results support the hypothesis that decreased mental activity accelerates cognitive decline.

“Individuals in the areas that implement the NRPS score considerably lower than individuals who live in areas that do not offer the NRPS program,” says study author and assistant professor economics Plamen Nikolov in a release. “Over the almost 10 years since its implementation, the program led to a decline in cognitive performance by as high as almost a fifth of a standard deviation on the memory measures we examine.”

This study’s findings were similar to previous research that had focused on the impact of retirement on elderly individuals living in the United States, England, and the European Union. So, this is hardly a trend limited to China.

Nikolov had actually conducted previous studies that found retirement led to a number of positive physical health benefits for retirees, such as improved sleep patterns, less stress, and reduced alcohol consumption. However, retirement is also usually accompanied with a decline in social activities and less overall interaction with people, which has also been linked to cognitive decline.

“For cognition among the elderly, it looks like the negative effect on social engagement far outweighed the positive effect of the program on nutrition and sleep,” Nikolov theorizes. “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.” 

While Nikolov found benefits to retirement, such as “improved sleep, less stress and less alcohol consumption,” his study proves inevitable that the body will age, and as retirement may become necessary, staying “physically and mentally” active is very important.

Putting the study’s results together with that of other studies he has conducted, Nikolov suggests, “Social engagement and connectedness may simply be the single most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age.”

Loneliness can be one of the most “negative” effects of retirement. Recent studies have found that many seniors go a week or more at a time without seeing anyone. This “loneliness”, as Nikolov said, can be a leading cause of cognitive decline.

If you are retired, you don’t have to fall into this trap. There are a multitude of biblical examples of great men of God who worked hard right up until their death. The greatest example of all is Jesus Christ and God the Father. In John 5:17 Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” God works and He wants us do as well. God meant for work and labor to be enjoyable.

Even in retirement, it is possible to work hard and stay physically and mentally active until the day we die. People seem to assume that after the 60s the human mind is supposed to decay. Perhaps some few, accepting the myth, have bogged down and grown senile. That is a tragedy. It happens only to the mind that has not been used. A mind improves with use and age. “Wisdom comes with experience and age.” Proverbs 16:31

In my personal experience I have enjoyed my greatest satisfaction since I hit the calendar age of 40. The most important knowledge has been learned since then. I speak today with more vigor, effectiveness, and power than in my 40s.

Even if you are elderly and retired, you have a lot to look forward to. There are, of course, health issues that must be obeyed, but ultimately it is God’s decision how much longer we are all here. We must remain physically and mentally active because no matter what age we are, God is still working in us to refine His character in us (Philippians 2:5).

God can keep me around as long as He wants to. It’s up to Him. I belong to Him. As long as He wants to use me, He can keep me going full steam ahead. I’m not thinking of slowing down. I still have plenty of energy and life left.

One of the greatest ways to stay active as a senior is through mission work, Bible study, prayer and throwing yourself into God’s Family and work to whatever level you are capable of. This will keep the mind active and growing spiritually as never before.

Whatever stage of life you are in, never limit how God can use you!

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