This is your brain at work

Taking stock

The New Year often inspires people to take stock of future job prospects and long-term retirement plans.

However, people often focus on relatively short-term considerations, such as wages and salaries, promotion opportunities, and 401(k) plans.

Most are unaware that the very nature of their work can affect their mental capabilities after they retire and leave the workforce.

“Your job can impact your cognitive functioning in later life,” says Amanda Sonnega, an associate research scientist at the Institute for Social Research (ISR).

Even accounting for other health changes that come with age, researchers found retirement tends to be associated with some level of cognitive decline that is not just an effect of aging, she says.

“In general, working seems to provide a level of cognitive stimulation that is protective against cognitive decline at older ages,” Sonnega says. “Researchers are looking at what it is about work that serves this role.”

Sonnega and her colleagues at ISR, as well as researchers at other universities, are using a treasure trove of data collected over the past 31 years by U-M’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to explore the job characteristics critical to keeping the brain healthy well into the golden years.

The HRS, which began in 1992 and is housed at ISR, is the nation’s leading resource for information on aging in America.

“It puts all of life into one survey and allows researchers to do comprehensive analyses relating to health, social interactions, pension plans, and even the neighborhood where you live,” Sonnega says.

Every two years, the HRS interviews approximately 20,000 participants in a representative sample of people over age 50 to find out how life changes as they age.

This information touches on various socio-economic topics: health and physical functioning, current employment, retirement plans, income and wealth, and family connections. Interviewers also obtain physiological and biological information about the participants, ranging from their walking speed and grip strength to their cholesterol and hbA1C levels.

Cognitive complexity and work

Thus far, researchers have keyed in on the cognitive complexity of work as being protective against cognitive decline, according to Sonnega.

“Jobs requiring more complex mental activities can help build a healthy brain reserve,” she says. Occupations most beneficial for long-term brain health entail frequent decision-making, problem-solving, and creative thinking. In addition, coaching others and developing talent are the most beneficial activities for long-term brain health.

“Conversely, we are beginning to investigate the effect of ‘bad’ jobs on later-life cognition,” Sonnega says. “Jobs that expose workers to harmful conditions, such as loud noises (which can contribute to hearing loss), may then lead to cognitive decline after retirement.”

Additional occupational factors can adversely impact workers’ long-term mental capabilities.

In a related study that used HRS data, researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health found that individuals who consistently earned low wages during their working years experienced significantly faster memory decline in older age than workers who never earned low wages.

The study looked at data for 2,879 individuals born between 1936-41 who had participated in the HRS from 1992-2016.

The findings revealed consistent low-wage earners experienced approximately one excess year of cognitive aging over 10 years; this additional loss was equivalent to 11 years of cognitive aging experienced by workers who earned higher wages.

Sonnega offers advice to people still in the early phases of their careers, saying: “Something to consider while you are making decisions about your job when you are younger is the cognitive complexity of the work and whether the work offers opportunities to interact with others. The choices you make throughout your career can help to protect your brain health later on.”

Motivators behind retirement

Retirement age represents a pivotal point in life. An individual’s decision to quit the workforce versus continuing to pursue meaningful work or volunteer activities can affect their cognitive capabilities.

But what motivates some people to retire before or at age 65 while others stay on the job?

To find out, Sonnega used HRS data on 5,072 individuals who rated their job in terms of how stressful it was, how much thinking was required, and how physically demanding it was. She also tapped into information linked to the HRS data from the Occupational Information Network, which provides an objective rating of those same job characteristics.

“We considered how physically able people felt, their level of depressive symptoms, and their cognitive functioning,” Sonnega says. “Then we examined how the mismatch between physical, emotional, and cognitive job demands and relevant personal resources affected retirement timing.”

Her findings provided critical insights into the motivators behind retirement.

“The people most likely to retire were those who had a mismatch between their emotional health and the stress of the job; and between their physical health and the physical demands of the job,” Sonnega reports.

“Interestingly,” she adds, “there was no connection between cognitive mismatch and retirement. This is possibly because people experiencing a certain level of cognitive decline do not keep working.”

Lure of self-employment

These days, more retirees are looking for self-employment opportunities.

Estimates from the 2016 wave of the HRS suggest that the fraction of self-employed workers increases with age from 15.4 percent of workers younger than 55, to 17.1 percent of workers ages 55-65, and to 33.8 percent of workers 65 and older.

“We see workers from all roles transition into independent self-employment at the time of retirement,” says Joelle Abramowitz, an assistant research scientist at ISR. “Self-employment can provide the flexibility to work fewer hours and have lower stress, which tends to be what workers moving into retirement are looking for.”

The barriers to entry around self-employment are lower than ever today, with the advent of the electronically mediated gig economy and the switch to remote work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, Medicare can make self-employment more attractive because retirement-age workers no longer need to rely on their employers for health insurance.

Some older workers use self-employment to bridge their career jobs and retirement. Others become entrepreneurs out of necessity when they can’t get hired due to outdated skills or ageism.

A leading question is whether retirement-age workers are better off choosing self-employment rather than pursuing alternative employment options.

In her study, Abramowitz used narrative descriptions of industry and occupation from respondents in the HRS and machine-learning methods to classify how older workers engage in self-employment. Then she examined how that work is associated with financial, physical, and mental well-being in retirement.

She found that self-employed people in three major categories ― a business owner, a business manager, or an independent contractor or consultant ― tend to be better off than wage and salaried employees. Self-employed individuals enjoy more income, greater wealth, and better health, contributing to their overall well-being.

“Compared to employees, the self-employed are more likely to report excellent or very good health and are less likely to say they are depressed,” Abramowitz explains. “This is particularly true for business managers and owners.”

Independent self-employment (such as freelance contracting and consulting) appears to be the most physically demanding work and is associated with lower compensation and fewer hours worked. But it involves the least stress, according to Abramowitz.

By comparison, business managers and owners have the least physically demanding jobs and enjoy higher compensation. However, they also work the most hours and have the most stressful jobs.

Giving Back

Many retirement-age individuals see their later years as a time to give back to their community through ongoing professional work or volunteer efforts.

Josephine Malecek, BSN ’99, is one of them.

Her dedicated career as an RN, educator, and, more recently, author spans 57 years. At age 77, she’s still going strong.

Malecek graduated from a three-year diploma nursing program at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ann Arbor in 1966 and started her nursing career in critical care and cardiac surgery.

“I always wanted to go to U-M for my BSN,” says Malecek, who earned her baccalaureate degree at Michigan in 1999 while raising a family and working full-time at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital. After completing a master’s degree in nursing in 2013, she held various clinical, administrative, and teaching positions in California and Michigan.

Currently, Malecek works full-time as a clinical administrator and educator at a long-term care and rehabilitation facility in St. Clair Shores, where her talent, experience, and education are very much needed.

“I’ve observed many people over the years who have given up their professional careers,” she says. “I think they begin to age and retreat into their own little world because they are not mentally stimulated or doing productive things.”

Malecek intends to work until she’s 80, or maybe longer. She firmly believes that staying active physically, mentally, emotionally, and professionally is essential for maintaining her health and well-being.

“Giving back, either as a volunteer or in a paid position, helps a person keep a positive attitude in life,” Malecek says. “Learning something new every day is important at any age, especially when you get older.”
(Lead image: iStock.)


  1. Chris Campbell - Rackham ,72; Law '75

    I’m 75 and working full-time at my career job as a legal aid lawyer. A couple years ago it dawned on me that most people my age are retiring. That seems odd; I like being engaged in useful activity and facing daily challenges. The work is inherently rewarding for problem-solvers. And without the job obligations, I’d probably be too lazy to hop on the commuter bicycle each morning, especially in the winter. The saddest people are those whose whole working lifetime has been oriented around retiring. Perhaps fewer would be so inclined if each day were 4 or 5 hours longer.

    Chris Campbell


    • Josephine Malecek - 1999

      Chris, I couldn’t agree with you more! I have subtly counseled cardiac patients who all they could think about after having a cardiac event was to “quit working”, even in their 40’s and50”s.I calmly would sit them down and walk them through the days and years after they quit work. When I discussed with them things like how they would spend their days and time they would answer things like wash my truck , go fishing, etc. I remember one police officer who at 52 had bypass surgery. His kids were grown and gone his wife would be gone to work every day and by the end of our quiet conversation, he said, “Josephine, I think I will ask the chief if I can be reassigned from walking the beat and take a desk or command job and keep working. I really am too young to give this all up”.😍


      • welby Cox - Post graduate at MIT

        Thanks, Josephine for sharing, my story is a mirror image of a man right on time for an early death but a corrective course has given new life to an old, but tragically bad ending for most men. Read on!


  2. Chuck Reed - 6 in theoretical time. 5 year plan for BSOE 1979 Florida Institue of Technolog. and 4 year plan for MSME 1987 University of Bridgeport.

    I am not only fortunate but really enjoy the mental engagement of professional work. Seems to me that when you are doing a salary job you are always looking for the time off. Since retirement and quitting the rat race, I really look forward to working and tolerate my time off if I can’t go fishing. My work as an Expert Witness in patent matters for the courts provide challenging short-term opportunities with a place in history if I get published in the records. The bonus is it gives me the opportunity to utilize my past learning and achievements while helping to keep me sharper longer. I think your article is spot on. P.s. I am only a parent of an alumni.


    • Deborah Holdship

      We love parents who read Michigan Today!


  3. Welby Cox - Doing Graduate Work at MIT in AI

    For the first sixty-five years of my life, I was a “take no prisoner” Captain of Industry. I had written a couple of books and had dabbled as an artist and I knew that was my passion. In 2000, at the age of 58, I was overweight by at least 60 pounds and had Type 2 Diabetes and a heart condition requiring a defibrillator. During the celebration of the new century, I had a heart-rending epiphany. Financially secure, I put down the drink, snuffed out the cigar, and vowed to hang it all up to save my life for my family. I did so, began to walk 15,000 steps per day, eat healthy foods only, and began to devote my life to research the next book and to paint. After 24 years at age 81, my A!C is 4.5, my weight is 154 at just under six feet and my doctor says I am probably going to live to be a hundred. To date, I have written 56 books, including major works on JFK and DJT, and have painted several hundred pieces of art and a mirror image of your thesis.


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