Sent: 30-06-2009 14:53:01
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Yet Another Reason for Working Longer
I recently wrote a series about the economic of necessitating longer working lives. If impending economic decline and potential poverty were not sufficient incentive, there is another significant imperative. Keep working to avoid dementia!
This is becoming an increasingly significant problem amongst older people, particularly those who are not mentally active. It is claimed in some new research that keeping the brain active by working later in life, may be an effective way to ward off Alzheimer's disease. The study analysed data from 1,320 dementia patients, including 382 men and found that for the men, continuing to work late in life helped keep the brain sharp enough to delay dementia taking hold.
The study was carried out by the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London and features in a paper written in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. It seems that more people than ever retire later in life to avert financial hardship, but this may have an unexpected silver lining, i.e. lower dementia risk according to Rebecca Wood of the Alzheimer's Research Trust.
Apparently, around 700,000 people in the UK currently have dementia and experts have estimated that by 2051, the number could stand at 1.7m. Whilst this does not sound like a huge number, it is estimated that the condition already costs the UK economy £17bn a year. I do not have comparable figures for Australia but I would guess that they are proportionally equivalent.
For those that were not aware, dementia is caused by the mass loss of cells in the brain, and experts believe one way to guard against it is to build up as many connections between cells as possible by being mentally active throughout life. This is known as a "cognitive reserve".
There is evidence to suggest a good education is associated with a reduced dementia risk. One can only presumed that being forced to use your brain during this period increases the connections between cells. This is supported by the notion that the higher the level of education, the higher the IQ tends to be. The old view was that this was because more intelligent people tend to take higher levels of educational qualifications. Now it is thought that by taking such qualifications, you actually increase your IQ. It's a moot point but as the piece I wrote on Status Effect a while ago noted, the higher your level of qualifications, the longer you tend to live.
And the latest study suggests there can also be a positive effect of mental stimulation continued into our later years. Those people who retired late developed Alzheimer's at a later stage than those who opted not to work on. Each additional year of employment was associated with around a six week later age of onset.
As researcher Dr John Powell so aptly put it: "The possibility that a person's cognitive reserve could still be modified later in life adds weight to the "use it or lose it" concept where keeping active later in life has important health benefits, including reducing dementia risk." However, the researchers also noted that the nature of retirement is changing, and that for some people it may now be as intellectually stimulating as work. As I have stated before, one of the fastest growing segments in the population for Internet use is amongst the old, i.e. those over 65! They are having to learn a whole new set of skills in order to being able to communicate with their grandchildren and are reveling in it.
Researcher Professor Simon Lovestone said: "The intellectual stimulation that older people gain from the workplace may prevent a decline in mental abilities, thus keeping people above the threshold for dementia for longer." Sadly, as always, things are not clear cut. Lovestone added that more research was needed if we are to understand how to effectively delay, or even prevent, dementia.
There is also debate about the efficacy of these results with Dr Susanne Sorensen, head of research at the Alzheimer's Society, suggesting that the small sample size of the study made it difficult to draw firm conclusions. As she said: "There could be a number of reasons why later retirement in men is linked with later onset of dementia. Men who retire early often do so because of health conditions, such as hypertension or diabetes, which increase your risk of dementia. It could also be that working helps keep your mind and body active, which we know reduces risk of dementia."
Personally, I like the last reason.
A spokesperson for the UK Department for Work and Pensions said it found that working beyond pension age had many positive effects. They added that not only can it mean more income, but also social networking and increased activity. Interestingly they commented that many of today's older workers are choosing the cliff edge between work and retirement in favour of a gradual step down., which was supported by the research I mentioned last time on changing attitudes towards working longer
Of course, to make this effective, employers and governments need to play their part as well.
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