Early retirement may lead to reduced cognitive performance, according to a new study.

Binghamton University researchers Plamen Nikolov and Shahadath Hossain conducted a study on how China’s retirement plans affect the cognitive performance of the elderly.

They examined China’s New Rural Pension Scheme (NRPS) and its participants with the help of the Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Survey (CHARLS), a survey within the Chinese adult population (45 years and above) to test their cognitive performance.

Through their study published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, the team found that access to retirement plans played a significant role in explaining the cognitive decline in the elderly who stopped working.

Nikolov and Hossain acknowledged that the pension and retirement benefits somehow improved the health of older adults. But overall, the negative effects of early retirement outweighed the benefits it provided the participants.

When they examined the data, the researchers noticed how the social engagement and mental fitness activities of the participants were negatively impacted by their decision to retire. Such factors led to reduced cognitive performance.

“Interestingly, we found that the program improved some health behaviors. Program participants reported a reduced incidence of regular alcohol drinking compared to the previous year,” Nikolov said, as quoted by EurekAlert.

“Participants in the program report substantially lower levels of social engagement, with significantly lower rates of volunteering and social interaction than non-beneficiaries. We find that increased social isolation is strongly linked with faster cognitive decline among the elderly,” he noted.

The assistant professor of economics further explained that the “adverse effects” of early retirement on social engagement and mental health significantly outweigh the positive effects of the retirement program.

“We were surprised to find that pension benefits and retirement actually resulted in reduced cognitive performance. In a different study, we found a very robust finding that the introduction of pension benefits and retirement led to positive health benefits via improvements in sleep and the reduction of alcohol consumption and smoking,” Nikolov added.

It is worth noting that the study only focused on the elderly in rural China. But the researchers found the same phenomenon in higher-income countries such as America, England and the European Union.

Nikolov is hopeful that their study findings could help create new policies to improve the cognitive functioning of older adults during retirement.