"The trouble with retirement is, there are not a lot of social or intellectual demands," says research psychologist Denise Park of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Life becomes routinized," a recipe for cognative decline. Some of the decline attributed to aging may therefore reflect not aging per se but factors much more within people's control.
What makes older brains look young?
One possibility is training. Attention and focus are top-down functions, in that the prefrontal cortex orders regions that see or hear to pay attention to important stuff and ignore the rest. Top-down activity seems to be among the most trainable mental functions.
A basic change the brain undergoes with age may also be reversible with training. Older brains often use both the left and right half of a region for something young brains do with only one side. Sometimes that improves performance. Older adults who activate both the left and right prefrontal regions, which are involved in memory, have pretty good short-term memory, says Illinois' Kirk Erickson. "Brains of older adults remain relatively flexible, able to alter brain circuits in response to training," says Dr. Erickson.
The old paradigm of working full throttle for decades and then switching overnight to total retirement is being replaced by a new model, one that has spawned the oxymoron: "retirement job."
The often work-centric Baby Boomers might be willing to work past typical retirement age - if it is on their terms. Many older workers will work longer if offered greater job autonomy, control over work hours and opportunities for learning, according to a study by the Families and Work Institute and the Center on Agingand Work/Workplace Flexibility at Boston College.
The term "retirement" no longer fits a stage of life which may last 30 years, and offers the opportunity to explore a wide range of active roles related to career, family, civic involvement, the arts, spirituality or entrepreneurialism.
How can you be retired if you are still working and earning income? Is a 75-year-old with a part-time job at Home Depot retired? Is a 68-year-old woman starting her own travel business retired?
Source: Science Journal, The Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2006