Trait, Behavioral & Mental Health Influences on Cognitive Functioning

Decreases in cognitive functioning are a major concern for the elderly and their caregivers, and many studies have investigated factors that may contribute to or protect against age-related decline in cognitive functioning. A recent study investigates both positive and negative factors to evaluate their contribution to cognitive functioning in 333 recent retirees. The study examined two positive factors—number of cognitive activities and need for cognition­­—and one negative factor­—depressive symptoms—and assessed their relationship and impact two, three, and four years after the retirement of the study’s participants.

While the relationship of the number of cognitive activities and depressive symptoms with cognitive functioning have been studied previously, this was the first study on aging to examine the impact of the motivational trait referred to as need for cognition. The need for cognition is defined as “a stable, dispositional tendency to seek out and engage in effortful cognitive activities.” In older adults this need for cognition has been associated with positive outcomes such as openness to experience, conscientiousness, higher levels of cognitive activity, effective problem solving, and positive emotions. As would be expected for a stable trait, in this study the need for cognition was highly stable when measured two years and four years after retirement.

When measured at year two, the need for cognition was positively associated with the number of cognitive activities that the participants engaged in. Depressive symptoms were negatively associated with both the number of cognitive activities and need for cognition. The strength of all of these relationships between the three factors was roughly the same.

The relationship between the three factors investigated and cognitive functioning was more complex, differing according to how many years after retirement the relationship was measured. Need for cognition measured two years after retirement did not show a statistically significant impact on cognitive functioning three years after retirement, but it was positively related to changes in cognitive functioning from year three to year four. This suggests that the need for cognition trait does appear to be protective against age-related cognitive decline, although it is unclear why this positive impact does not appear earlier. Perhaps the lack of an association was due to lifestyle adjustments associated with recent retirement; additional research is needed to determine why the positive association is showing up later.

By contrast, the number of cognitive activities exhibited two years after retirement are positively associated with changes in cognitive functioning three years after retirement, but the number of cognitive activities three years after retirement showed no statistically significant association with cognitive functioning four years after retirement. The reasons for this remain unclear, but the authors suggest that perhaps the novelty of cognitive activities or the level of engagement or intensity with which activities are pursued may become more important to cognitive functioning over time. While the need for cognition trait and the number of cognitive activities are both associated with positive outcomes on cognitive functioning, the authors also note they appear to be operating differently since they show statistically significant associations at different time points.

Like the number of cognitive activities, the number of depressive symptoms two years after retirement was also associated with changes in cognitive functioning three years after retirement, in this case negatively affecting cognitive functioning. However, here again, no association was found between depressive symptoms three years after retirement and cognitive functioning four years after retirement. This is potentially good news, suggesting that depressive symptoms’ impact on cognitive functioning may decrease the farther an individual gets from the transition to retirement. More research will be required to determine what factors may be responsible for the differences in the impact of depressive symptoms observed in this study.

A few important implications emerge from this study. First, the impact of traits such as the motivational trait need for cognition needs to be taken into account when examining cognitive functioning. The authors state, “Interventions to increase cognitive activity levels of retirees and older adults could be made more effective by taking into account individual levels of need for cognition and by designing modules to increase motivation and engagement.” Second, this study suggests that there is much about the transitional period into retirement and its potential impact on cognitive functioning that needs to be studied. It is encouraging that the need for cognition is positively associated with cognitive functioning four years after retirement, but the reasons that this association isn’t apparent at three years after retirement remain unclear. Similarly, it is encouraging that the negative association between depressive symptoms seen three years after retirement is no longer apparent four years after retirement. The reasons for this also need further study. Ideally, future research will also reveal whether statistical associations four years after retirement persist, and whether the positive association of the number of cognitive activities with cognitive functioning reappears in subsequent years post-retirement.


Baer LH, Tabri N, Blair M, et al. Longitudinal associations of need for cognition, cognitive activity, and depressive symptomatology with cognitive function in recent retirees. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences (2013); 68 (5): 655-664.

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