Does Retiring Speed Up Dementia?

By: Dr Bill Beckwith

There are retirement stories both ways. Some have a long and rewarding retirement. Others seem to decline either physically or mentally shortly after retirement. The fear is that by retiring, one becomes disengaged and cognitive impairment sets in. After all, educational attainment, social engagement, exercise, challenging work, and bilingualism are “neuroprotective so they decrease the risk” of such problems as Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, the conundrum is that we cannot determine cause as there is no study that disentangles whether time of retirement is a result or the cause of cognitive decline. This is further complicated by the fact that Alzheimer’s disease unfolds over the course of decades with subtle onset.
But what does the research tell us? There are a few studies that indicate that there is a correlation, an association between retirement and the risk of developing dementia. The findings are often quoted as a delay in onset of Alzheimer’s disease for each year retirement is delayed. One study suggests a delay of 0.13 years for each year that retirement is put off. This begs several questions like are we talking delays after 65, 60? The most recent study was conducted in connection with the European Alzheimer’s imitative (“Retirement age and the age of onset of Alzheimer’s disease, PloS One, 2015, 10, e0115036, PMID 25714815).
The study was based on an epidemiological study in Europe of 815 patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The database included age at retirement (excluded anyone leaving work before age 50) and age of onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Both age of symptom onset and age of diagnoses were considered. Several possible confounding factors were considered in the analysis: gender, level of education, income, complexity of job, as well as medical variables like hypertension, diabetes, depression, and stroke. Average age of retirement in this study was about 61.
Overall, later retirement age was associated with both delays in age of onset of symptoms (average = 74.9) and age at diagnosis (average = 77.1). This association held even when considering only those who retired before age 65. However, there was no significant association for those who retired before age 65 and developed Alzheimer’s disease ten years or more after retirement indicting that some of those who retired early did so because of symptoms interfering with work performance. The results were not associated with gender, income, medical conditions, occupation, or education.
In conclusion, there is an association between age of retirement and the age of onset of Alzheimer’s disease. However, whether early retirement speeds up the onset of Alzheimer’s disease is unresolved. It is clear that developing cognitive impairment can speed up the age of retirement. I find these data a relief as I an in the early stages of retirement and, so far, seem to be cognitively able.

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