The Dangers Of An Early Retirement

Comedian George Burns used to say, “Retirement at sixty-five is ridiculous. When I was sixty-five I still had pimples.” Okay, it’s great for a laugh, but many people are ready to move on to their next life chapter around this time. And these days, others aim to retire even earlier, like in their 50’s, 40’s, or even late 30’s. I’m guessing Burns would’ve said these folks are still in diapers.

Today, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to retirement. People operate on the timeline that works for them. While retirement is an individual goal, there is some universal advice that rings true no matter how old you are when you say farewell to work. That advice? Even if you unplug from your career, stay plugged into things you enjoy and that give you purpose.

As a case in point, in my profession, I’ve spent time with ready-to-be-retirees across all age groups. Often I’ll talk with clients in their early 40’s looking to clock out for the last time around age 45. While the main focus of our conversations is financial happiness, I also like to talk with clients about overall life happiness.

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What I try to impart to folks is that we have to set realistic expectations. When you’re going 90 miles per hour in your career, you can’t retire and find happiness in dropping down to 5 miles per hour. It just doesn’t work that way.

Sure, retirement gives us an abundance of freedom. Our time isn’t on someone else’s watch, so we’re free to travel, spend more time with family and friends, and explore interests beyond what we were doing in our careers. All of these things are positives associated with the huge life change of retirement. But shouldn’t we also consider the potential downsides?

The Pitfalls Of Early Retirement

Like what? I’m glad you asked. One of the pitfalls of early retirement is something that researchers have termed “mental retirement,” and it’s not a good thing. New science shows that there is a link between cognitive decline and retirement. According to recent studies, this phenomenon may hit early retirees the hardest.

Data were collected from participants aged 60 to 64. Among the participants, some worked, while others were retired. Researchers found a linear relationship between continuing to work and performance on memory tests. From the findings, the longer people kept working, the better they did on the tests.

The studies didn’t stop there. Researchers wanted to investigate the relationship between cognitive decline and early retirement. To see if a correlation existed, scientists employed the memory test experiment to people in different countries – countries where people are encouraged to retire earlier and countries where people retire later. Their findings showed that early retirees scored significantly worse than later retirees.

Why would early retirement dampen our cognition? Researchers explain that when we stop working, the level of mental stimulation we get on a day-to-day basis naturally decreases. When your brain loses a level of stimulation it’s become used to, the mind can start to slow down.

For younger retirees, this is especially dangerous. As an example, if you retire at age 40, by the time you hit 60 your cognition will be much more impaired than it would have been if you had put off retirement to age 50. It’s a kind of “use it or lose it” scenario. Couple this with the fact that it’s easier to learn new things when we’re younger, and it’s a double blow to keeping our brains healthy and active.

And that’s not all. Even the simple act of calendaring our retirement date could slow our brains down. If we’re 45 and know we’re going to retire in five years, will we really step up to the task of learning new skills and taking on difficult projects? Researchers say probably not. So the risk of mental retirement can kick in before we actually enter into true retirement.

How To Keep Your Mind Active

So what’s the antidote? Staying active. This doesn’t mean you have to stay active in the workforce, but it may be something you want to consider. Perhaps you leave your career to work part-time for a cause you’re passionate about. Or maybe you try transferring your talents into a new line of work. Researchers point to other key ingredients, like tapping new and varied skills, shying away from our comfort zone, and learning from our mistakes. However it looks for you, the key is to stay engaged, with body and mind.

After all, we become accustomed to certain rhythms in our days. Mental stimulation is one of them. As humans, we also crave our core pursuits – our individual passions and purpose. While retirement often seems like the gateway to happiness, it’s not automatic. We have to work at it. If we don’t cultivate passions and purpose in these years, we could end up slowing down more than we planned.