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The Role of Preretirement Job Complexity in Cognitive Performance

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The Role of Preretirement Job Complexity in Cognitive Performance

Can working longer prevent cognitive decline in later life? A recent study suggests that working until later years of life might improve cognitive function for aging individuals. Postretirement work has become increasingly popular in this modern age which makes it possible to study how work during later years in life can actually influence cognitive function.  A decline in cognitive function is one of the common concerns for aging individuals and seniors. Recent studies believe that retirement may actually speed up this decline. Retirement is described as a period in life where there’s a reduction or cessation of work effort. Today, many people are postponing retirement or even reversing their decision to return to work. Probably brought by financial and economic causes, the increasing number of individuals who go through this path remains unstudied, until now. 

The Study 

This study analyzes cognitive changes in an individual in relation to his job complexity in the context of several different retirement situations. The researchers hypothesized that different retirement pathways can protect against cognitive decline for different kinds of workers. Based on earlier studies, the researchers expect that the cognitive effects of retirement will be linked with preretirement job complexity. The researchers hypothesize that high complexity job workers will have greater cognitive reserve and greater resources which will make the transition to retirement less challenging. Low complexity workers after retirement will benefit from continued stimulation which will mitigate cognitive decline imposed by retirement. The study was designed to understand alternative retirement pathways to full retirement and working longer. It also explores other retirement pathways which are both important and intriguing since workers and employers might benefit from them. 

What Is Cognitive Reserve? 

Cognitive reserve refers to the case where people who have Alzheimer’s have manifested very little cognitive impairment. This means that education, activities, and occupation can affect people’s cognitive reserve. Other factors also include leisure activities, social networks, and lifestyle.   


The researchers used data from Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to find out changes in cognitive function for workers who have held the following types of job complexities: low, moderate, and high. The researchers used the O*NET classification of jobs to determine the external occupational-level ratings of job characteristics.  It analyzed a survey of individuals over the age of 50. Data used was from biennial waves of the HRS from 1996 to 2010. Data was the most comprehensive nationally representative panel data on U.S older adults available. 

This data is also analyzed with their retirement pathways. The researchers used inverse probability weighted regression adjustment for selection effects. The samples include individuals who worked full-time (i.e., 35  hr or more and self-identified as not retired) and subsequently: (a) stopped working completely and self-identified as retired (i.e., full retirement); (b) partially retired by engaging in paid work after retirement, that is, they worked 20 hr or less and reported being “retired” (i.e., partial retirement); (c) retired fully and later returned to work (i.e., retire and return to work); or (d) remained working full-time. 

Unlike other studies, the researchers used exploratory factor analysis to explain work complexity. They included 36 occupational characteristics measures available. All those who had factor loading below 0.60 were removed. The researchers used an interactive process to choose the items that produced the highest alpha scores. The final selection included five items : (a) making decisions and solving problems; (b) thinking creatively; (c) coaching and developing others; (d) frequency of decision-making; and (e) freedom to make decisions.

The researchers used two models for the methodological approach. The first one accounts for selection into retirement or the propensity model. The other is the regression model which adjusts for the propensity into retirement transition and controls factors that influence changes in cognitive function. 

The final model included factors such as economic resource factors, demographics, and health. The first demographic covariates include race, sex, and educational attainment. Age was a continuous measure. The researchers also included a dichotomous measure of whether a person is eligible for early social security by the age of 62. 

The researchers addressed research questions using the effects model to estimate potential outcomes based on the mean 6-year change in cognition score from baseline wave t to four study waves later at T+3. Separate POMs are estimated based on each of the four retirement pathways first (Model 1) and then within 3 × 4 = 12 groups classified by occupational complexity (high, medium, low) and work/retirement path (continuous full-time work, partial retirement, retiring and returning to work, fully retiring).

Limitations of the Study

The main limitation of this study lies in stratifying the kinds of activities the subjects engage in while at work and whether they may have consequences in their nonwork lifestyle. For example, those who work in highly complex jobs may seek out more cognitively engaging activities outside of work. They may engage in other stimulating activities which help them remain socially, cognitively, and physically engaged. Those who work in low complexity jobs may not have the resources or interest to engage in these activities. Furthermore, the study’s small sample size affects the statistical power to get reliable estimates of differences within the different complexity groups. 


The researchers found systematic variations in the relationships between work and cognitive performance as a function of job complexity and retirement pathways. Based on the data, all of the retirement pathways were linked with an accelerated cognitive decline for those who worked in low complexity jobs. This is not observed for high complexity workers. Returning to work after retirement was also associated with improvement in cognitive function. 


Now that people are working longer and retiring much later, we need to understand how retirement paths can actually affect cognitive function. The researchers believe that their findings can prove to be very beneficial in revealing the effects of preretirement job complexity in relation to an individual’s cognitive function. It is important for at least two primary reasons. First is the need for a better understanding of the effect of prolonging work at older ages on well-being. Second is the effect of underfunded retirement plans and an aging population in certain countries. However, the researchers believe that more research should be done to examine specific mechanisms responsible for the relation between, work complexity, retirement, and cognition.  


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