Makeup Work: Boosting Cognitive Benefits with Post-Retirement Leisure Activities

Previous research has shown that work complexity prior to retirement is associated with long-term cognitive benefits in retirement, but what about the impact of the leisure activities that older adults choose to participate in once they’ve retired? Can certain types of leisure activities late in life help compensate for having a less cognitively challenging work life? To answer these questions, researchers recently analyzed a survey that asked about both work life and post-retirement leisure activities, as well as cognitive factors.

Survey participants were asked their occupations, which were then coded according to the previously established complexity of each occupation. As for leisure activities, both cognitive and physical leisure activities were examined. Cognitive leisure activities included reading books and playing puzzles or chess, and physical activities included athletics and walking. When looking at the impact of higher complexity of work, this study was consistent with past research, finding that greater work complexity attenuated cognitive aging in verbal skills, memory, and processing speed. When researchers examined cognitive and physical leisure activities after retirement, they found that both positively affected verbal skills and speed of processing, and that cognitive leisure activities positively impacted memory, regardless of work complexity. In fact, after retirement, the trajectories of the participants suggest a stronger impact of the cognitive leisure factor than for prior work complexity.

When the researchers looked more closely at the post-retirement period, they concluded that, “Engagement in cognitive or physical leisure activities in older adulthood may compensate for cognitive disadvantage potentially imposed by working in occupations that offer fewer cognitive challenges.” This provides strong additional evidence that older adults should be discouraged from taking an “it’s too late” or “it’s inevitable” attitude toward their potential trajectories of cognitive change. The researchers express the hope that, “These results may provide a platform from which to encourage leisure activity participation in those retiring from less complex occupations.”


Andel R, Finkel D, and Pedersen NL. Effects of preretirement work complexity and postretirement leisure activity on cognitive aging. Journals of Gerontology Series B (2016); 71(5): 849–856.

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