Categorized | Sondra's Musings, Features

Can working really keep dementia at bay?


Dementia is the second largest contributor to death among older Americans.


By Sondra L. Shapiro

Ok, I will admit there are times when I am jealous of my retired friends. They have all the time in the world to take leisurely trips to exotic places, volunteer or just flow with the day.

While many of my friends are spending winters in Florida, national trends find many folks working past traditional retirement age. As a member of the working class I was happy to learn that my choice could be strengthening my mental health.

While financial incentives may motivate many older Americans to keep working, according to a  2013 French study, for each additional year of work, the risk of getting dementia is reduced by 3.2 percent.

Dementia is the second largest contributor to death among older Americans — heart failure is first — according to the Alzheimer’s Association. One in every three seniors dies afflicted with Alzheimer’s or another dementia.

Over 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease today, including an estimated 200,000 under the age of 65. By 2050, up to 16 million will have the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

So, the 2013 study of 429,000 French workers offers a lot to think about. Participants had an average age of 74 and had been retired for an average of 12 years. Nearly 3 percent had developed dementia but the risk of this was lower for each year of age at retirement, according to an Associated Press report.

A person who retired at 65 had about a 15 percent lower risk of developing dementia compared to someone retiring at 60, after other factors that affect those odds were taken into account, said lead researcher Carole Dufouil, who at the time was the director of research in neuroepidemiology at France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM).

Use or Lose it

It is logical to wonder if a person retired because of mental decline. To rule that out, the researchers excluded anyone who developed dementia within five years of retiring.

“The trend is exactly the same, suggesting that work was having an effect on cognition, not the other way around,” Dufouil  said.

The French study supports newer data that suggests the brain benefits from mental exercise. The “use it or lose it” philosophy is being proven over and over again in other studies. So a person should not use the fear of Alzheimer’s as the only reason to keep working.

The findings of all of these studies make the case that if someone decides to retire, he or she should have other activities to fill those waking hours. So, my retired friends should have little to fear, as long as they aren’t spending the majority of their waking hours hanging out, watching TV.

Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer’s Association, told the Associated Press, “It’s more staying cognitively active, staying socially active, continuing to be engaged in whatever it is that’s enjoyable to you” that’s important.

“My parents are retired but they’re busier than ever,” said Snyder. “They’re taking classes at their local university, they’re continuing to attend lectures and they’re continuing to stay cognitively engaged and socially engaged in their lives.”

Brain Stimulation

Numerous research concurs that brain simulation such as word puzzles, games, academic courses and volunteering, to name a few, help keep dementia at bay. Exercise and eating a heart-healthy diet have also been proven to keep brains in fine working order.

shapiro2Since the mid ’90s, the trend has been for Americans to stay in the workforce longer.

There’s plenty of financial incentive to continue working. One big reason: For every year someone puts off collecting Social Security, the monthly benefit increases about 8 percent until he or she turns 70, at which point the maximum has been reached.

According to a recent Gallup poll, three-quarters of U.S. adult workers believe they will continue working past retirement age, with 40 percent saying they will do so because they want to and 35 percent because they will have to. Only 19 percent said they plan to stop working at retirement age by choice.

Perhaps these statistics mean fewer Americans will experience mental decline than current research predicts.

Only time will tell.

In the meantime, while the promise of mental acuity and financial security are motivators to continue working, I am happy to learn there are lots of ways to keep my mind sharp.

So, perhaps I’ll be joining the ranks of the leisure class soon. After all, there’s potential for mental stimulation during a long, cross-country road trip, hours spent playing scrabble, or volunteering at my local pet shelter.

Sondra Shapiro is the publisher of Fifty Plus Life. She can be reached at Read more at Follow her at


Leave a Reply

Join Now for the 50 Plus Newsletter