Working beyond normal retirement age appears to keep dementia at bay
With 401(k)s looking more like 201(k)s these days, many baby boomers are putting off retirement to rebuild decimated nest eggs. But amid such uncertainty there may be hope: A number of studies suggest that staying mentally and socially active may help stave off dementia and other dreaded declines associated with aging.
One tantalizing British study, in particular, recently concluded that working beyond normal retirement age appears to keep dementia at bay.
“Probably the way things are going, I will never retire,’’ said Agnew, who has been working seven days a week in her ARTmosphere Gallery in the North End since laying off several workers earlier this year.
“I would like to slow down a little more,’’ she said, “but the way things are, I am speeding up.’’
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease first emerged in Agnew’s father three years after he retired at 65. He died of the disease at 83. Now, Agnew’s decision to continue working may confer a double-barreled benefit: a fatter nest egg and, if the recent British study holds true, a longer period of health.
The British researchers scoured medical records of 382 men whose Alzheimer’s symptoms emerged around age 75. They found that, all other factors being equal, the symptoms were delayed about seven weeks for each extra year the men worked.
“It is possible to affect onset of dementia by lifestyle choices later in life,’’ the study’s lead author, Michelle K. Lupton, a graduate student at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, said in a phone interview.
Lupton said that the group’s findings, published in May in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, shouldn’t be interpreted as a prescription to work years longer to avoid Alzheimer’s. Rather, she said, their conclusions add weight to the “use it or lose it’’ hypothesis of staying mentally engaged to slow the negative effects of aging.
While the researchers only looked at the link between retirement and Alzheimer’s in men, Lupton said similar findings would likely apply to women.
Some scientists believe a trait called cognitive reserve may help explain why certain people are able to stay mentally sharper longer than others. The term applies to the brain’s resilience, its ability to cope with damage – such as the signature plaque that clogs the brain in Alzheimer’s – while still functioning normally.
Exposure throughout life to mentally challenging activities – such as pursuing an education, working at an engaging job, and volunteering – may contribute to building cognitive reserve, said Yaakov Stern, professor of clinical neuropsychology at Columbia University and a member of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Medical and Scientific Advisory Council