Maintaining Mental Facility After 50

The bad news is that mental facility declines after age 50. The good news is that it doesn't happen to everyone equally.

This article summarizes the potential impact of this research on an individual level and more broadly.

The bad news is that mental facility declines after age 50. The good news is that it doesn’t happen to everyone equally, according to Fabrizio Mazzonna and Franco Peracchi in their working paper on SSRN dated Jan. 12, 2012. In 37 pages, the authors show convincing numbers indicative of a mental decline after age 50 that is lessened by specific factors: educational level and the continuation of work.

Mazzonna is from the Munich Center for the Economics of Ageing. Peracchi is from the Centre for International Studies on Economic Growth at the University of Rome II. The researchers used data from the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) to make their conclusions. SHARE includes statistics on about 30,000 individuals from 11 European countries who were tested over time for orientation, immediate and delayed recall, fluency and numeracy.*

Several pertinent figures from the paper entitled “Ageing, Cognitive Ability and Retirement” are below:

High school dropouts did more poorly than high school and college graduates in all categories of testing except for orientation.

Those who remained employed did better in all areas of testing compared to those who retired.

Women appeared to do better than men, but that is not exactly how the authors interpret the above figures.

“…females perform better than males in the [two] memory tests, while males perform better in numeracy. In the other [two] tests … differences across sex are not statistically significant,” Mazzonna wrote me in an email. “As a consequence, it is difficult to say who performs better because cognitive abilities are a multidimensional concept.”

There are two important conclusions from this research. One is that the higher one’s educational level, the more likely she or he is protected from the natural aging cognitive decline.

Secondly, early retirement, on average, is not beneficial to mental capacity. Further, the decline increases over time.

“…the loss caused by retirement is not a one-time drop in the level of cognitive abilities, but it increases over time with the length of the retirement spell,” Mazzonna wrote in the email. “The main idea is that after retirement people lose the market incentive to stay active because their retirement benefits do no longer depend on their level of human capital (i.e. cognitive abilities).”

Though the average magnitude of this yearly decline is small — “between .02 and .05 standard deviation for each year spent into retirement,” the researchers said — it still “means that each year into retirement implies a decline in cognitive abilities comparable to one or even two additional years of age.”

Journal of Health Economics

The author’s concept is supported by “Does Retirement Affect Cognitive Functioning?” by E. Bonsand, S. Adam and S. Perlman in the . This paper looks at data from the U.S. instead of Europe. These researchers seem to be promoting an action based on their findings: oldsters should work longer to attenuate cognitive declines after 50.

This idea could surely become a political hot potato in the current economic climate as the government is seeking new ways to delay the retirement age so that old age social benefits will start later and, therefore, drain the government’s coffers less.

*England and the U.S. have comparable studies. The one from England is called the English Longitudinal Study on Aging (ELSA). The one in the U.S. is called the U.S. Health and Retirement Study (HRS).

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