Old People Working Longer: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By now, we’ve all read about the fact that retirment is becoming a thing of the past, as the recession keeps older people at work–if they can find any, that is. Actually, the forces shaping this trend date back to Reagan era social cuts, and are scarcely going to be offset by the Obama administration’s measley $250 geezer bonus. But it turns out that there may be one good thing about having to work further and further into our old age: It might delay the development of dementia. The BBC reported on Monday about the results of a study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London:

Dementia is caused by the mass loss of cells in the brain, and experts believe one way to guard against it is to build up as many connections between cells as possible by being mentally active throughout life. This is known as a “cognitive reserve”.

There is evidence to suggest a good education is associated with a reduced dementia risk. And the latest study suggests there can also be a positive effect of mental stimulation continued into our later years. Those people who retired late developed Alzheimer’s at a later stage than those who opted not to work on.

Each additional year of employment was associated with around a six week later age of onset.

Dr John Powell,one of the researchers, said: “The possibility that a person’s cognitive reserve could still be modified later in life adds weight to the ‘use it or lose it’ concept where keeping active later in life has important health benefits, including reducing dementia risk.”

There are a couple of problems with this apparent silver lining, especially in the context of the current recession. To begin with, a lot of older people are having to take jobs at places like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, which aren’t exactly hotbeds of mental stimulation. In addition, the current study could be contradicted by a study the BBC reported on just a few months ago, which found that “long working hours may raise the risk of mental decline and possibly dementia”:  

The Finnish-led study was based on analysis of 2,214 middle-aged British civil servants. It found that those working more than 55 hours a week had poorer mental skills than those who worked a standard working week. The American Journal of Epidemiology study found hard workers had problems with short-term memory and word recall.

So it’s good for oldsters to keep working, but not work too long or too hard. Unfortunately, it might be a little difficult for some people to make these nuanced choices when they’re trying to earn enough to pay for both their rent and their blood pressure meds. 

A spokesperson for the British Department for Work and Pensions, responding to the latest study, suggested that a gradual transition to part-time work might be the answer, saying that “many of today’s older workers are choosing rejecting the cliff edge between work and retirement in favour of a gradual step down.” But especially here in the United States, where there isn’t much of a safety net to catch us, some old people have have to work themselves to exhaustion just to keep from taking a dive. 

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