Five Easy Ways to Avoid Mental Retirement

LNWM | Retirement | March 10, 2011

With boomers nearing the typical retirement age of 65, a host of ominous studies have been released on life post-work. One research project was particularly disenchanting, which suggests that saying goodbye to work puts your mental acuity at risk.

The two economists who penned the paper “Mental Retirement” argue that once people say ‘I quit,’ their cognitive abilities begin to decline, memory becomes more challenged, and general function starts deteriorating. Why? The most obvious reasons are that the workplace provides an environment where people exercise their brains, socialize and stay relatively active. According to Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University, this recent research suggests that work actually provides an important component of the environment that keeps people functioning optimally.

Is “work” really the secret to a sharp mind? What’s missing in the study – and in the experts’ conclusions – is the acknowledgement that many of the same types of mental and social activities that keep us alert in the workplace can still happen when we leave traditional careers behind. Intellectual, social and emotional growth can happen just as easily on a trip to the museum as it can on a walk to the boardroom. Perhaps the real secret is doing anything, so long as it’s something.

In that spirit, here’s a list of five simple ways to keep your mind quick and your life long:

1. Create a reading list and work through it

Select a diverse mix of books about subjects you are interested in. The key is to broaden your horizons. You can choose some of your favorite reads from the past, but also try something new. If you generally choose fiction, try reading a biography about a person that you find intriguing.

Here’s a suggestion, buy the books (or get them on your Kindle). That way you will feel guilty if you don’t read them.

2. Form a hiking group

This can be hiking, walking, disco dancing, whatever. The point is that you have a regularly scheduled time to spend with a group of equally energetic and committed people. For starters, try to meet once a week and go up from there.

3. Take a cooking class

OK, it doesn’t have to be a cooking class. It could be taking a golf clinic, sowing the seeds of an urban farm, touring art galleries on First Thursday—whatever strikes your fancy. The main idea is to get out and about in your community and to increase your knowledge about people and places around you.

4. Talk to someone else’s kids

Today’s children don’t get enough respectful interaction with adults who are outside of their immediate family and independent from competitive pursuits like sports and school. When most people reflect on their childhood, they positively recall some grownups who treated them respectfully and talked to them.

So, talk to a kid. Reach out to a parent and say “Hey, if you’d like me to take them to the museum for the afternoon, I’d love to do it.”

5. Go hear live music

Nothing replaces the thrill of experiencing music live. It’s an instant recharge from the mundane aspects of life. The iPod will never be an adequate substitute for the real thing. And, we have more choices of styles and venues than ever.

Even better, go dust off that clarinet you used to play in high school and start practicing again. Or, learn to play a new one at a band camp for adults.

Really, it’s not about saying no to work… it’s about saying no to mental slippage.