Research conducted by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research has shed new light on the impact of work-related stress on the cognitive abilities of adults over the age of 40. (It must be said that the study did not assess people under the age of 40, so it could very well be that these findings do not apply only to middle-aged and older people, but also to younger workers)
It has long been known that using the brain is essential to stay sharp, a concept that has been dubbed the “use it or lose it” phenomenon. This has often been used as an important argument by those who advocate that the retirement age is raised, since working is seen as effective way of warding off dementia.
Raising the retirement age also has a positive impact on governmental coffers, but it is not quite as easy to put a positive spin on that, is it? Anyway, I digress.
The Australian study, entitled “Use It Too Much and Lose It? The Effect of Working Hours on Cognitive Ability” by Shinya Kajitani, Colin McKenzie and Kei Sakat, has shed new light on the impact of working on the brain. After assessing over 7000 people over the age of 40 and running cognitive tests such as asking them to recall strings of numbers, recite numbers backwards and also undergo reading and vocabulary tests, the study concluded that there was indeed a positive correlation between work and cognitive capacity however this only applied if the person worked up to 25 to 30 hours per week for males and 22 to 27 hours per week for females. Anything more than that and the correlation turned negative – in other words a person’s cognitive abilities decline with every additional hour worked per week.
That’s one hell of an incentive to aim for financial independence and some form of partial retirement once one reaches middle age!
Clearly long working hours have a negative effect on a person’s cognitive abilities, while working on a part-time or freelance basis up to around 25 hours a week is an effective way of maintaining cognitive functioning – as compared to total retirement or unemployment. FIRE enthusiasts who aim to leave their high-stress jobs, get off the work treadmill and reduce their formal working hours are clearly on to something.
I guess that this study has simply proven something that we have all known intuitively all along. Allowing work to take over too large a portion of your life is bad for you. Working long hours and under considerable stress takes a toll on your health, both physically and mentally. Sitting at home and vegetating, on the other hand, is not good for you either.
What we should all be aiming for is balance.
When I think of my life once I leave my formal career I do not envision sleeping in every day and lolling around doing nothing. I can very well see myself do that every now and then, but on the whole I would like to be busy and active, in a positive way. I think that this is a very important consideration for people who are aiming to retire. Going from 60 hours at the office to nothing to do can be quite a shock to the system. So if you are aiming to retire in a few years’ time you need to start preparing now. Find hobbies, get involved in a sport, volunteer with a local charity, or start writing a blog 😉
The important thing is that you make sure that when the big day comes, the red letter day when you pack it in and quit your job, you smoothly transition into a new, less stressful life that is still full of challenges and mental stimulation, flexing both your physical and mental muscles. After all, after working so hard to attain financial independence and retire early, it is important to take care of your mental and physical health so you will be able to enjoy your retirement for as long as possible.