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Interview: Learning Boosts Brain Health in Retirement


Lawrence Baer

A Canadian study examines cognitive function in recent retirees and finds that new learning keeps our brain sharp and adds zest to life.

"The idea is to prevent the brain from developing lazy habits," said Lawrence Baer, lead author and a PhD candidate in psychology at Concordia University in Montréal, Québec, Canada.

The findings appeared online in the Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences on Dec.3, 2012.

To learn more, AHB caught up with Mr. Baer in Montreal.

Ruth Dempsey: The research looked at cognitive function in recent retirees. Why focus on this group?

Lawrence Baer: The period immediately following retirement can be a time of profound and far-reaching change in a person’s life.

The routines of everyday life are disrupted, income levels may decline. And the externally imposed structure of life in the workplace and the social camaraderie are lost.

It can be a challenge to adjust, but it can also be a wonderful opportunity to establish new routines and launch novel pursuits.

This period may also coincide with the first noticeable signs of normal age-related declines in physical health and cognitive function.

So, we wanted to understand how cognitive function changed during this period and to identify factors that might put an individual at risk for cognitive decline as well as the factors that might offer protection.

RD: Can you give me a thumbnail sketch of the study?

LB: The research is part of the Concordia University Longitudinal Retirement Project undertaken by myself, Nassim Tabri, Mervin Blair and Dorothea Bye under the leadership of senior researchers Dolores Pushkar and Karen Li, all members of Concordia’s Centre for Research in Human Development.

We were very lucky to have the cooperation of Hydro-Québec and the Provincial Association of Retirees of Hydro-Québec recruiting 446 individuals in the first year of a four-year project that looked at a large variety of biological, psychological and social factors. The participants were recent retirees with an average age of 59 years.

We added a measure of overall cognitive function in the third year. We also analyzed data from the 333 individuals who continued on to the fourth year of the study, when we measured cognitive function a second time.

So we had a snapshot of participants’ cognitive status in year three of the study and a measure of change in cognitive status from year three to year four.

RD: The findings are interesting. For instance, retirees who engaged in a variety of activities showed better cognitive function.

LB: That’s right. The greater the variety of cognitive activities engaged in at year two, the better cognitive performance at year three.

However, there was no association between the variety of cognitive activities and change in cognitive status from year three to four.

We are not sure why. It may be that retirees initially try out many different activities. And novel activities can stretch, sharpen and stimulate the brain.

As these activities become more routine, the novelty will wear off and this may diminish their power to enhance cognitive performance.

RD: The study highlights the importance of motivation. Can you give me an example?

LB: We measured what we call people’s "need for cognition," or the extent to which an individual will seek out mentally stimulating activities and actually enjoy the effort involved. This is a trait that is fairly stable over time.

We found that the need for cognition was a protective factor against cognitive decline from year three to year four. But we didn’t find any relationship between need for cognition and cognitive status at year three.

So, it looks like the need for mental stimulation grows in importance over time. In other words, as retirees settle into retirement, they need to ramp up the intensity of their intellectual pursuits.

RD: Researchers also looked for signs of depression . . .

LB: Most of the research on depression and cognitive decline has focused on adults over 65, and the results have been mixed.

Our team wanted to find out if depression was a risk factor in the period immediately following retirement and for a slightly younger age group.

The findings suggest that even enduring mild symptoms of depression can lead to cognitive decline in older adults.

RD: Keeping mentally fit demands a combination of stimulating routines and effort. Is that right?

LB: I think it is helpful to think about mental fitness the way you think about physical fitness.

A person who doesn’t enjoy the challenge of intense physical activity is less likely to exercise regularly and, when they do, they may not exercise intensely. So, they won’t be as physically fit as someone who loves the feeling they get when they push themselves physically – say by signing up for a tough aerobics class or engaging in competitive sports.

RD: Any tips?

LB: There is growing public awareness of the importance of staying mentally active as we age. But, as with other things, people differ in their level of motivation.

Again, I think people who strive to be physically fit can offer us inspiration. I know that if I work alone at the gym, I’m not the type of person who will push myself as much as I would if I worked out with a friend or was part of a fitness group. In the group setting, my engagement is linked to the performance of others and reinforced by praise and encouragement.

Maybe retirees, who have lost the structure of work deadlines and miss the support and encouragement of peers, need to find a similar structure in retirement in order to engage in intellectual activities with sufficient intensity.

Signing up for a continuing education class, starting a book club in the neighbourhood or investing in a new hobby can extend our lives in new dimensions and new directions.

The idea is to prevent the brain from developing lazy habits and to strive for maximal brain health.