Retirement: A dangerous illusion

Retirement: A dangerous illusion


HAVE you ever seen what happens to your calf after it has been in a plaster cast for a while? The muscle becomes so weak that it almost disappears after not being used for as little as two weeks. It’s the same with your brain. If you don’t use it, it will deteriorate quickly.

Many of those who retire at 60 or 65 are in a comfortable position and do not face a real challenge in life anymore, like struggling to earn a living or having to prove themselves in the workplace. However, this comfort comes with a side effect, because research clearly shows that those who stop working at 65 and fully retire in the sense of not extensively engaging in alternative activities report a sharp decline in cognitive skills over the next few years; whereas those in the same age group who continue to work or pursue other challenging tasks do not show these symptoms.

And this affects a large part of life because nowadays we are not talking about a few years between retirement and passing away, but rather about several decades. The question is how to use your full potential during the last quarter or even third of your life.

The Fata Morgana of retiring

The whole idea of retirement is not only outdated but it was wrong in the first place. Many people in their 40s and 50s are working toward retiring with good savings. However, if you are so focused on retirement for such a long time, it indicates that you are not really enjoying what you are doing now. Not every day at the workplace can be full of bliss, but if you learn to endure an unwanted situation for so long, you will no longer know what your real needs are and how to realize them. If you educate your brain over many years not to pay attention to your current needs, how will you all of a sudden be able to do so after retirement? If you spend years building a ship and fantasizing about the great freedom out at sea, you may find that you eventually have lost the courage to set sail once the ship is ready.
So retirement is often an illusion because it does not materialize in the freedom and happiness one imagined, and it is dangerous because if you avoid any real challenge, it will lead to a rapid decline in your mental ability for the rest of your life.

Decide for yourself how old you are

However, there is an alternative to an early decline of your brainpower. There are people who are still very much active even in their 80s and 90s and whose brain functions match the performance of people less than half their age. Scientists call them “superagers” and they recommend that you continue “to work hard at something” if you want to age in a superb way. It doesn’t matter if you work as a freelancer in your previous profession after official retirement or start something completely new, like your own business or engaging in volunteer work, as long as you really challenge yourself with it and leave your comfort zone. The concerned brain region associated with cognitive abilities responds to both physical and mental challenges. Ambitious physical exercise will result in the same positive results for your brain, whereas keeping yourself busy with Sudoku and crosswords doesn’t have an anti-aging effect on the brain. Jogging helps; brain jogging doesn’t. The most important aspect is your attitude. One has to cultivate a beginner’s mind and accept failure as an integral part of the game.

Whoever wants to become a “superager” has to embrace the qualities of inquisitiveness, openness and determination. You must be ready to leave your comfort zone and willing to encounter unknown and possibly unpleasant situations. The actual activity depends entirely on your personality. Think about the 105-year-old cyclist, the 89-year-old job seeker or the scientist in his nineties. If you prefer to live in your fully comprehensive cover world and strive to avoid everything unpleasant and challenging in life, you are contributing to your own decline. The choice is yours.

Dietmar Hanzen,