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Challenging Goals and Tasks May Help Preserve Cognition in Retirees

Some middle-aged and older adults, particularly women, who disengage from difficult tasks and goals after they retire, may be more likely to experience cognitive decline as they age, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.

“This study raises questions about how individual differences in motivation and gender may play a role in cognitive declines and points to the potential importance of continuing to engage in mentally stimulating activities in retirement,” said lead author Jeremy Hamm, Ph.D., of North Dakota State University.

“This may be a significant challenge for people who have a tendency to let go of goals when they encounter initial obstacles and setbacks.”

The study looked at data from Midlife in the United States, a national longitudinal survey of 7,108 participants aimed at identifying the factors that influence health as people age.

Specifically, Hamm and his team looked at a subset of 732 participants from the survey to analyze the differences in cognitive function between retired adults and similar others who chose to continue working past retirement age. Half of the participants were female and 94% of participants were white.

Earlier research has shown that retiring is linked to a greater risk of cognitive decline, but little is known about the motivation factors that could make a person more susceptible to such a decrease, according to Hamm.

“Our premise was that not all those who retire are likely to be at higher risk of decline. We thought that individuals who retire may be more or less at risk, depending on their tendency to disengage from challenging tasks and goals that could otherwise provide a source of mental stimulation,” he said.

The research team measured participants’ levels of “goal disengagement,” defined as a tendency to lower one’s ambitions and reduce commitment to personal goals. The study participants were asked to rate (on a scale of one to four) their level of agreement with statements such as the following: “To avoid disappointments, I don’t set my goals too high” and “I feel relieved when I let go of some of my responsibilities.”

The research team also gave the participants a test (taken by telephone) to measure basic cognitive functions, such as memory, reasoning and processing speed.

The overall findings reveal that retired women who were prone to disengagement had steeper declines in cognitive functioning than their peers who remained employed. However, no differences were found between retired and working men who were prone to disengagement, whose higher socioeconomic status may have protected them from early declines, according to Hamm.

The results are consistent with other theories suggesting that retirement may only be linked to greater cognitive decline in those who are more likely to disengage from highly challenging activities and goal pursuits.

“Our findings suggest not everyone who retires is at greater risk of cognitive declines. There are many opportunities to engage in mentally stimulating activities in retirement, such as reading or playing word games,” he said.

“However, personal agency and motivation may come to the fore at this stage of the lifespan since these activities often need to be self-initiated and autonomously maintained.”

The study findings are published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

Source: American Psychological Association


Challenging Goals and Tasks May Help Preserve Cognition in Retirees

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Challenging Goals and Tasks May Help Preserve Cognition in Retirees. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 18 Mar 2020 (Originally: 18 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 18 Mar 2020
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