If your idea of retirement is sitting back in a lawn chair, you may want to set some other goals for yourself. Retirement offers many pleasures, but it also seems to bring an increased risk of memory loss, particularly to those who have few activities to engage them. The rates of cognitive decline among retirees vary quite a bit. Researchers believe that motivation could play a role in the degree to which some retired people are able to find things to do that replace the mentally stimulating activities that were once part of their work.

To get a clearer picture of how the changes in a person's motivation after retirement makes them susceptible to cognitive decline, a group of researchers looked at the association between motivation and cognitive functioning after retirement over a nine-year period, using data on 732 participants in Midlife in the United States, a national longitudinal survey to identify factors that influence health as people age.

“…[C]ontinuing to engage in mentally stimulating activities in retirement… may be a challenge to those who may let go of goals when they encounter significant setbacks or obstacles.”

Half the participants were women, and 94 percent of those responding to the survey were white. The average age of the men and women in the study was 57.

The survey asked people about their tendency to be less ambitious and less likely to set or achieve personal goals after retirement, a process called goal disengagement. Participants were asked to rate, on a scale of one to four, how much they agreed with statements such as, “To avoid disappointments, I don’t set my goals too high,” and “I feel relieved when I let go of some of my responsibilities.” Participants also had their basic cognitive functioning, including memory, reasoning and processing speed, tested via telephone. The results were analyzed by a team of researchers around the U.S.

Women who were retired reported higher levels of goal disengagement; they also had steeper declines in cognitive functioning than women who were still employed. This difference didn't hold up among men. Retired men who were prone to disengagement and those who were still employed showed no differences in cognitive functioning. It may be that higher socioeconomic status protected the retired men from early declines in cognitive functioning, Jeremy Hamm, lead author of the study, told TheDoctor in an email.

“Although we were not surprised that disengagement may make retirees more vulnerable to cognitive decline, we were surprised this was only true for women,” Hamm, an assistant professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, said.

Previous research points to several possible reasons why goal disengagement is only associated with cognitive decline in women,he explained. Women may have more difficulty adjusting to retirement compared to men, and they may be less likely to set specific goals for their retirement. Female retirees are likely to have fewer socioeconomic resources, such as the ability to travel or pursue hobbies, compared to men to protect them against cognitive decline.

The good news is that not every one who retires is at risk for cognitive decline, said Hamm. He recommends mentally stimulating activities such as reading or playing word games. “However, motivation may be important because these activities often need to be self-initiated and pursued,” Hamm added. Staying socially and physically active can have additional cognitive benefits for retirees.

“The study raises questions about how individual differences in motivation and gender may play a role in cognitive decline, and points to the potential importance of continuing to engage in mentally stimulating activities in retirement. This may be a challenge to those who may let go of goals when they encounter significant setbacks or obstacles,” Hamm indicated.

The study is published in Psychology and Aging.