A study published recently in Age and Ageing, the scientific journal of the British Geriatrics Society, provides new evidence that workers retiring from occupations which involve high levels of social stimulation may be at greater risk of accelerated cognitive decline in later life.
The study, which was conducted by researchers at University of Liège, in collaboration with the Universities of Bordeaux and South Florida, surveyed 1,048 individuals over the age of 65 from Bordeaux. Participants were evaluated at 2 year intervals for a period of 12 years. Psychologists’ evaluations included detailed assessments of subjects’ mental cognition, general health and information about their former occupation. Three independ
ents raters were asked to evaluate the level of social and intellectual stimulation for each occupation. These raters then classified each of the occupations as ‘low’, ‘medium’ and ‘high’ in relation to these levels.
Researchers found that, regardless of mental stimulation at work and other confounding variables, there was an accelerated cognitive decline in those subjects who had previously enjoyed a highly social workplace prior to their retirement. This cognitive decline was found to present as late as a decade after retirement. When considering why these subjects were not receiving the same levels of social stimulation outside the workplace researchers took into account a number of potential reasons. These included restricted mobility with ageing, which prevented them leaving the house regularly, as well as fewer opportunities to interact and exchange ideas with people on a daily basis
as compared with the working life. The study also found that high levels of intellectual stimulation at work were associated with better cognition in older adulthood. Researchers believe that one potential explanation is the fact that it is easier to compensate for reduced intellectual stimulation during retirement, as compared with social stimulation.
This study builds on existing research which has shown retirement can have a detrimental effect on cognition, and presents new evidence that this cognitive decline may be accelerated when linked to the loss of a highly social work environment. Older adults retiring from an occupation characterised by high levels of social interaction may need to pay particular attention to ensuring they have continued social engagement in order to maintain their cognitive function.
Catherine Grotz, Marie-Curie COFUND postdoctoral fellow at University of Liège and author of the Age & Ageing paper, said:“This study indicates that there is a difference between the impact of social and mental occupational characteristics on cognitive decline after retirement. We found that workers retiring from occupations characterised by high levels of social stimulation are more prone to accelerated cognitive decline in later life. These diverging trajectories of cognitive change were not linked to mental stimulation at work. This result is just one piece of evidence; we expect to understand how loss of exposure to the work environment following retirement can be compensated for through social stimulation in future studies”.