New US research has found that women who let their commitment to personal goals slide after retirement may have a greater risk of cognitive decline as they age.
Led by researchers at North Dakota State University, the new study looked at 732 participants who were surveyed as part of a bigger study (Midlife in the United States) which investigates the factors that influence health as people age.
The researchers looked at the data to identify any differences in cognitive function between adults who had retired and those who had chosen to continue working past retirement age.
This included analyzing the participants' level of "goal disengagement," which is when people lower their ambitions and commitment to personal goals, by asking them to rate their level of agreement with statements such as "To avoid disappointments, I don't set my goals too high" and "I feel relieved when I let go of some of my responsibilities" on a scale of one to four.
The participants' basic cognitive functions, such as memory, reasoning and processing speed, were also tested.
The findings, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, showed that women who were retired and who were disengaged from their goals showed a sharper decline in cognitive functioning than the women who had remained employed.
However, whether men retired or continued working, disengaging from goals appeared to have no effect on their cognitive health. The researchers say that having a higher socioeconomic status could have protected the men from early declines.
"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, PhD. "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 findings are also in line with previous research, which has shown that retiring is linked with an increased risk of cognitive decline, but little is known about the motivation factors that could make someone more susceptible to such a decrease, according to Hamm.
"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."