Retirement accelerates memory loss in civil servants, study finds

Research into cognitive decline shows officials in higher grades remain sharper until they retire


By Tamsin Rutter

26 Jan 2018

A study tracking more than 3,400 civil servants as they moved into retirement found that their brain function declined rapidly once they were no longer working.

This new research testing the theory that retirement increases the risk of cognitive decline suggests that employment can stimulate the brain, with more senior, still employed, civil servants demonstrating slower cognitive decline than junior officials.

But the study showed that brain function rapidly declined in retirees regardless of their rank when they worked in Whitehall.

The researchers, from University College London and Kings College London, found that participants’ “verbal memory”, the loss of which is associated with the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s, was declining at a rate almost 40% faster after retirement than before.


Some 3,433 civil servants took part in the Whitehall II Study, which involved having their cognitive functioning tested repeatedly during a period up to 14 years before and 14 years after retirement.

The researchers found that “declines in verbal memory were 38% faster after retirement compared to before, after taking account of age-related decline”.

Civil servants in higher grades demonstrated slower decline in their cognitive functioning while still working, but previous seniority had no effect on the rate of decline post-retirement.

“The smaller cognitive decline before retirement in employees from high employment grade jobs points to the potential benefits of cognitively stimulating activities associated with employment that could benefit older people’s memory,” said the study, which was published in the European Journal of Epidemiology.

Other studies have shown that later retirement is associated with a lower risk of developing dementia.

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