March 16 (UPI) -- Setting goals post-retirement may help protect against cognitive decline, a study published Monday in the journal Psychology and Aging suggests.
In a survey of retirees and people that kept working past the typical retirement age of 65, researchers found retired women who "disengaged" -- or left careers that featured challenging tasks or goals and became less ambitious post-retirement -- had steeper declines in cognitive functioning than peers who remained employed.
They observed no differences, however, among retired and working men who were prone to similar disengagement.
The authors believe that the higher socioeconomic status of the men in their study may have protected them from early declines.
"Our findings suggest not everyone who retires is at greater risk of cognitive declines," study co-author Jeremy Hamm, assistant professor of psychology at North Dakota State University said in a press release.
"There are many opportunities to engage in mentally stimulating activities in retirement, such as reading or playing word games," he said, noting that, because of age, "these activities often need to be self-initiated and autonomously maintained."
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 16 million Americans are living with some form of cognitive impairment. A person's risk for cognitive impairment increases with age, and it's estimated that some 10 percent of those 50 years of age and older in the U.S. are dealing with a decline in mental function.
Earlier research has linked retiring with an increased risk of cognitive decline, but little is known about the motivation factors that make someone more susceptible to decreases, Hamm noted.
For their research, he and his colleagues analyzed data from Midlife in the United States, a national survey of more than 7,100 respondents designed to assess health in the aging population. The researchers used a subset of 732 participants from the survey to examine differences in cognitive function between retired adults and similar others who continued working past retirement age.
The team measured participants' level of goal disengagement, or their tendency to lower their ambitions and decrease commitment to personal goals. Participants were asked 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.
Participants also took a test by telephone to measure basic cognitive functions, such as memory, reasoning and processing speed.
In general, they found that retired women prone to disengagement had steeper declines in cognitive functioning -- memory and decision-making -- than peers who remained employed, while no differences emerged between retired and working men prone to disengagement.
"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," Hamm said. "This may be a significant challenge for people who have a tendency to let go of goals when they encounter initial obstacles and setbacks."