As we get older it’s natural to worry about our cognitive abilities declining, especially if there’s a family history of dementia. But according to research there is one important thing you can do to slow or even stop that decline – though it might not be the solution you wanted.
Almost half a million Australians are living with symptoms of cognitive decline and dementia. It is the second leading cause of death in Australia and the leading cause of death for women.
Although typically associated with older people, signs of cognitive decline and dementia can begin to appear much earlier in life.
“Cognitive decline is something that happens slowly and gradually, starting probably in our 30s and 40s,” says neurologist Dr Dean Sherzai.
There are many things we can do to help stop our brains deteriorating. Keeping fit and getting plenty of exercise are crucial, as is eating a diet rich in fresh vegetables and lean meat and doing puzzles and activities that make you think.
“Managing a team, book clubs, card games, learning to dance, music, taking classes at any age … It should be about more complex things that you enjoy,” Dr Sherzai says.
The World Health Organization also lists actions such as quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake, lowering blood pressure, keeping weight down and staying socially active as ways to stave off cognitive decline.
But research from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany shows there is another means to protect brain health – staying at work for longer.
The study was based on data taken from the Health and Retirement Study, a long-term survey of around 20,000 Americans aged 50 and over.
Delaying your retirement to at least the age of 67 can significantly reduce your risk of cognitive decline, it found. Keeping your brain focused and active strengthens neurological pathways in your brain. Strong pathways resist cognitive changes, while weaker unused ones can allow negative changes to set in.
The researchers say working for longer slows the rate of cognitive decline and can even protect against brain problems caused by some other diseases.
As well as having positive cognitive effects at an individual level, the Max Planck researchers also looked at the effects of delayed average retirement age on the wider population.
This might not be the news older Australians considering retirement want to hear. According to the YourLifeChoices Insights Survey 2021, more than 75 per cent of Australian retirees stopped working before the age of 67. Just over 20 per cent quit working before they were even 60.
The results, however, will be music to the federal government’s ears. With the Age Pension eligibility age sitting at 66.5 years and set to rise to 67 in 2023, an actual health reason (rather than a purely economic one) for working for longer makes their case stronger.
A 2013 French study that looked at around half a million self-employed workers in France also found a link between working later in life and a reduced risk of dementia.
Would you be willing to delay your retirement if it could improve your brain health? Did you retire before 67? Has that had any effect on your cognitive abilities? Let us know in the comments section below.
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