Here's something I found after surfing a few links. Given the interest in intelligence augmentation and biological immortality here, I figured you guys would find it useful to know; I wasn't particularly planning on retiring (given biological immortality or uploading technologies), but if this is true, I definitely won't be for as long as I can avoid it.

The two economists call their paper “Mental Retirement,” and their argument has intrigued behavioral researchers. Data from the United States, England and 11 other European countries suggest that the earlier people retire, the more quickly their memories decline.

The implication, the economists and others say, is that there really seems to be something to the “use it or lose it” notion — if people want to preserve their memories and reasoning abilities, they may have to keep active.

“It’s incredibly interesting and exciting,” said Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University. “It suggests that work actually provides an important component of the environment that keeps people functioning optimally.”

While not everyone is convinced by the new analysis, published recently in The Journal of Economic Perspectives, a number of leading researchers say the study is, at least, a tantalizing bit of evidence for a hypothesis that is widely believed but surprisingly difficult to demonstrate.

Researchers repeatedly find that retired people as a group tend to do less well on cognitive tests than people who are still working. But, they note, that could be because people whose memories and thinking skills are declining may be more likely to retire than people whose cognitive skills remain sharp.

And research has failed to support the premise that mastering things like memory exercises, crossword puzzles and games like Sudoku carry over into real life, improving overall functioning.

“If you do crossword puzzles, you get better at crossword puzzles,” said Lisa Berkman, director of the Center for Population and Development Studies at Harvard. “If you do Sudoku, you get better at Sudoku. You get better at one narrow task. But you don’t get better at cognitive behavior in life.”

The study was possible, explains one of its authors, Robert Willis, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan, because the National Institute on Aging began a large study in the United States nearly 20 years ago. Called the Health and Retirement Study, it surveys more than 22,000 Americans over age 50 every two years, and administers memory tests.

That led European countries to start their own surveys, using similar questions so the data would be comparable among countries. Now, Dr. Willis said, Japan and South Korea have begun administering the survey to their populations. China is planning to start doing a survey next year. And India and several countries in Latin America are starting preliminary work on their own surveys.

“This is a new approach that is only possible because of the development of comparable data sets around the world.” Dr. Willis said.

The memory test looks at how well people can recall a list of 10 nouns immediately and 10 minutes after they heard them. A perfect score is 20, meaning all 10 were recalled each time. Those tests were chosen for the surveys because memory generally declines with age, and this decline is associated with diminished ability to think and reason.

People in the United States did best, with an average score of 11. Those in Denmark and England were close behind, with scores just above 10. In Italy, the average score was around 7, in France it was 8, and in Spain it was a little more than 6.

Examining the data from the various countries, Dr. Willis and his colleague Susann Rohwedder, associate director of the RAND Center for the Study of Aging in Santa Monica, Calif., noticed that there are large differences in the ages at which people retire.

In the United States, England and Denmark, where people retire later, 65 to 70 percent of men were still working when they were in their early 60s. In France and Italy, the figure is 10 to 20 percent, and in Spain it is 38 percent.

Economic incentives produce the large differences in retirement age, Dr. Rohwedder and Dr. Willis report. Countries with earlier retirement ages have tax policies, pension, disability and other measures that encourage people to leave the work force at younger ages.

The researchers find a straight-line relationship between the percentage of people in a country who are working at age 60 to 64 and their performance on memory tests. The longer people in a country keep working, the better, as a group, they do on the tests when they are in their early 60s.

The study cannot point to what aspect of work might help people retain their memories. Nor does it reveal whether different kinds of work might be associated with different effects on memory tests. And, as Dr. Berkman notes, it has nothing to say about the consequences of staying in a physically demanding job that might lead to disabilities. “There has to be an out for people who face physical disabilities if they continue,” she said.

And of course not all work is mentally stimulating. But, Dr. Willis said, work has other aspects that might be operating.

“There is evidence that social skills and personality skills — getting up in the morning, dealing with people, knowing the value of being prompt and trustworthy — are also important,” he said. “They go hand in hand with the work environment.”

But Hugh Hendrie, an emeritus psychology professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, is not convinced by the paper’s conclusions.

“It’s a nice approach, a very good study,” he said. But, he said, there are many differences among countries besides retirement ages. The correlations do not prove causation. They also, he added, do not prove that there is a clinical significance to the changes in scores on memory tests.

All true, said Richard Suzman, associate director for behavioral and social research at the National Institute on Aging.

Nonetheless, he said, “it’s a strong finding; it’s a big effect.”

If work does help maintain cognitive functioning, it will be important to find out what aspect of work is doing that, Dr. Suzman said. “Is it the social engagement and interaction or the cognitive component of work, or is it the aerobic component of work?” he asked. “Or is it the absence of what happens when you retire, which could be increased TV watching?”

“It’s quite convincing, but it’s not the complete story,” Dr. Suzman said. “This is an opening shot. But it’s got to be followed up.”

2

6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:59 PM
New Comment

I wasn't particularly planning on retiring (given biological immortality or uploading technologies)

Downvoted for declaration of unsupported belief in the absurd.

(Looks at parent comment rating of -2)

What?! We now have a free pass on transhumanist cheerleading on LW, no matter how crazy, and norm against criticising it or even raising a concern about its unsubstantiated nature? (Or was it just the reaction to downvote-the-post decision given in the parent comment, given that the problem is not relevant to the overall topic of the post?)

I know of no convincing account for why the probability of achieving "biological immortality or uploading" during our lifetime is sufficiently nontrivial to talk about planning for that. Even FAI, also unlikely in the near future, doesn't imply these particular outcomes (it implies strictly better outcomes, but not these). And humans "manually" getting uploading to production on human brains, not just the first proof-of-concept experiments, not counting the difficulty of getting the prerequisite technologies up and running? It's a whole lot of work.

Whatever the case, if the claim is not sufficiently accepted, it shouldn't be mentioned in passing, reinforcing the anti-epistemic norm of propagating memetic noise.

While I haven't downvoted your comment, I considered it briefly. Why?

  1. Your reading of the initial statement is only one possible take on what could be meant, and it's by far the most uncharitable reading. (Contrast to reading it as "I wasn't planning on retiring, if we achieve biological immortality or updating technologies.")

  2. It's a bit noisy. The thrust of the piece is in its quotation, which is relatively interesting. The poster's beliefs which may be crazy don't really affect it. It's not in any way advocating those beliefs, merely mentioning them as they pertain to why the poster was interested in this.

[-][anonymous]12y 1

Whatever the case, if the claim is not sufficiently accepted, it shouldn't be mentioned in passing, reinforcing the anti-epistemic norm of propagating memetic noise.

Agreed, and upvoted grandparent.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

Would the same phenomenon be observable even after controlling for age?

I'm pretty young but I can 'retire' at just about any time thanks to the disability pension for mental illness. I don't for many reasons, ranging from the fact that I can't afford mainstream life insurance to cover mainstream cryonics in Australia yet. Another reason is that my illness might be episodic, and therefore not elegible for pension in the long term and disability payments for the mentally ill is political fraught.

Importantly for mentally ill people interested in disability support, if retirement is in fact cogntively harmful, then perhaps it is inappropriate to give disability pensions to those with deteriorating mental states because it might worsen their conditions. Anyone's thoughts on this?

I wasn't particularly planning on retiring (given biological immortality or uploading technologies)

What do you mean by this?