When you think of your retirement, what do you picture? Relaxing in a warm location, traveling the world, or spending time with loved ones? While those are all valuable, a retirement activity you may not have considered is staying mentally active.
Keeping your mind sharp is a good idea at any stage in life, and research indicates that it is particularly important as you age and consider retirement. A British study1 that tracked participants for over 30 years found that their verbal memory — the ability to recall words and other abstractions involving language — declined nearly 40 percent faster once the participants retired. Other studies2 have linked early retirement to a higher likelihood of dementia, indicating the importance of staying cognitively and socially active later in life, both as a worker and retiree.
The more scientists learn about the way our brains work, the more they understand that memory and other brain functions appear to have “use it or lose it” facets. So in order to avoid loss of mental acuity, you may want to find a new “job” for your brain even as you step down from your career.
How can you retain your mental sharpness?
Researchers from the British study believe our social connections are a critical aspect of how employment helps keep our brains healthy. When we retire, we leave behind frequent interaction with colleagues and even friends. For continued brain health, it is important to strengthen your social networks as you transition to retirement.
Besides staying socially active, there are other ways to help keep cognitive decline at bay. Groups such as the Alzheimer’s Association recommend adopting key lifestyle habits:3
- Stay active. Physical exercise and good brain health are strongly linked.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Besides affecting your body, your food choices can affect your mental sharpness. Similarly, it’s important to avoid tobacco and excess alcohol.
- Take note of the head-heart connection. A healthy heart can help your brain remain healthy.
- Protect your head to avoid potential head trauma.
- Be aware of the potential impact of external factors. Stress, mental disorders and some medications can affect memory and brain power. Be sure you get enough sleep.
- Educate yourself, formally or informally. Learn something new by taking a class in person or online.
- Challenge yourself through activities such as playing games or engaging in volunteer work that you find stimulating. Brain-training apps and puzzles can provide mental workouts.
- Use everyday tools such as calendars, file folders, planners and address books to trigger your memory. Make it a habit to keep frequently used items in specific places so you don’t have to search for them.
Assistance is also increasingly available from technology companies. A voice-activated “home companion”4 can dispense the correct number of pills at the right time and provide other wellness reminders, all with a smile. Electronic locator tags can help anyone find lost items like wallets or keys. Virtual assistants such as Alexa, Siri or Cortana can be programmed to provide reminders that help offset memory loss. They also offer trivia or word mastery games that help you flex your memory muscles. And of course numerous apps and social media outlets allow for video chats, online social interaction and more—helping users of all ages to keep in touch and maintain strong social connections.
Perhaps the most important piece of information to remember? That retiring from your profession doesn’t necessarily mean retiring mentally.
1 Effect of retirement on cognitive function: the Whitehall II cohort study. European Journal of Epidemiology. Oct. 2018.
2 Older age at retirement is associated with decreased risk of dementia. European Journal of Epidemiology. May 2014.
3 10 ways to love your brain. Alzheimer’s Association. 2019.
4 Pillohealth.com. 2019.
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