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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Use it or lose it and Mental Retirement [1]

         Most people have probably heard the phrase “use it or lose it.” In this blog entry the term is connected with the process of cognitive aging and retirement.  It suggests that as we grow older we can at least slow down the process of mental decline by engaging in cognitively demanding activities that exercise the mind.  Recent research, however, has raised some questions about this “mental-exercise hypothesis”
         To explore this question the researchers surveyed a large number of persons from the USA, England, and eleven European countries. They were able to conclude that retirement may cause a decrease in a person’s cognitive ability relative to staying in the labour force and refer to this process as the “mental retirement effect”.
         They cite a recent article that asks if retirement leads to depression. The authors reach an opposite conclusion that people who are depressed select retirement. Surprisingly it was found that retirement often reduces depressive symptoms.
         Another area of mental losses in retirement may be seen in the relationship between Human Capital and Cognition, specifically fluid and crystallized intelligence. Human capital refers to the stock of competences, knowledge and personality attributes embodied in the ability to produce economic value.  Fluid intelligence is the processing part of intelligence including reasoning, memory and self-focused thinking. Crystallized intelligence is our accumulated information over our lifetime.  It has been theorized that as we age our thinking process (fluid intelligence) slows down but our potential for finding wisdom increases.
         The authors formulate a conclusion about Mental Retirement.  It is that we engage in more mental effort while we are working. In fact the term “use it or lose it” assumes that after we retire we may lose cognitive stimulation and environmental challenges.  Unless we take specific action to keep cognitively active, mental retirement involves moving into an “unengaged lifestyle.” 
         It’s more than doing crosswords or finding words in my Giant Book Word Seeks that I mentioned in an earlier blog entry.  Retirement is a major change in life style.  Early retirement in particular, “… appeared to have a significant negative impact on the cognitive ability of people in their early 60’s.
         In the North America the trend toward early retirement is being reversed.  People like myself are working beyond 65, the standardized retirement age.  So, in the end the researchers conclude that longer time at work can be good not only for the society but for the older person’s cognitive capacities.  This appears to support the phrase "Use it our Lose it."

[1] Much of this material was taken from a journal article “Mental Retirement” by Suann Rohwedder & Roberth Willis. The title of the article is Mental Retirement. it was downloaded through google


  1. This is a very interesting and important subject. After being retired for a few years, I found that I missed the intellectual challenge offered by work (I'm a business consultant). I've returned to do some consulting as both a mental stimulant and a variation from the "day-to-day routine." Bill

  2. Bill,
    I can't tell you how good it is to read comments about my blogs. Many people visit them but few make comments. At one point in my career I was a registered counselor. I don't want to go back to that but the workshops I am developing will help me continue to feel that I am making a contribution. Good Luck!!

  3. Bill,
    I will be doing the same thing by marketing my workshops to the business community. Do you have any adive about presenting my ideas within that community>