Is retirement lethal?

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Eric Barker  -  
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Previously I’ve posted on how retirement is correlated with cognitive decline. The proof keeps on rolling in:

We investigate the relationship between aging, cognitive abilities and retirement using the Survey on Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), a longitudinal survey that offers the possibility of comparing several European countries using nationally representative samples of the population aged 50+. We use a version of the model proposed by Grossman (1972) as a guide for our empirical specification of the age-profile of cognitive abilities. According to the model, retirement plays a fundamental role in explaining the process of cognitive deterioration. Our empirical results confirm this key prediction. They also indicate that education plays a fundamental role in explaining heterogeneity in the level of cognitive abilities.

Source: “Aging, cognitive abilities and retirement in Europe” from Centre for Economic and International Studies Vol. 7, Issue 5, No. 152 – November 2009

And:

Some studies suggest that people can maintain their cognitive abilities through “mental exercise.” This has not been unequivocally proven. Retirement is associated with a large change in a person’s daily routine and environment. In this paper, we propose two mechanisms how retirement may lead to cognitive decline. For many people retirement leads to a less stimulating daily environment. In addition, the prospect of retirement reduces the incentive to engage in mentally stimulating activities on the job. We investigate the effect of retirement on cognition empirically using cross-nationally comparable surveys of older persons in the United States, England, and 11 European countries in 2004. We find that early retirement has a significant negative impact on the cognitive ability of people in their early 60s that is both quantitatively important and causal. Identification is achieved using national pension policies as instruments for endogenous retirement.

Source: “Mental Retirement” from RAND working paper WR-711, October 2009

However cliche, “use it or lose it” seems to be quite true across the board when discussing the human machine.

The more studies I read the more I see how our body generally follows our behavior, not leads, when it comes to decline.

From testosterone proving to be an effect not a cause, to aging being reversed by how you behave, to those repeated studies on how profound the effects of regular exercise are, the more I roll my eyes when people excuse lazy or bad behavior because of age.

Your metabolism did not “slow down.” You slowed down and your metabolism followed.

Okay, enough lecture. So what’s the new reason why retirement is bad? Well if dementia isn’t enough, retirement can out-and-out kill you:

This paper investigates the effects of retirement on various health outcomes. Data stem fromthe first three waves of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). With this informative data, non-parametric matching methods can be applied to identify causal effects. It is found that retirement significantly increases the risk of being diagnosed with a chronic condition. In particular, it raises the risk of developing a cardiovascular disease and being diagnosed with cancer. Estimates also indicate that retirement has quite diverse effects for different individuals.

Source: “How Does Retirement Affect Health?” from IZA Discussion Paper No. 4253, June 2009

Don’t retire. Everything I’ve been reading points in one direction: Never stop challenging yourself.

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How To Stress Out Less And Reduce Worrying

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Nobody likes stressing and worrying. And, no, even if you think it keeps you sharp it’s not good for you. It can cause all sorts of health problems over time, including messing up your memory and ability to pay attention:

The authors report the first direct assessment of working memory capacity when people engage in worry. High and low worriers performed a random key-press task while thinking about a current worry or a positive personally relevant topic. High (but not low) worriers showed more evidence of restricted capacity during worry than when thinking about a positive topic. These findings suggest that high worriers have less residual working memory capacity when worrying than when thinking about other topics and, thus, have fewer attentional resources available to redirect their thoughts away from worry.

Source: “Restriction of working memory capacity during worry.” from Journal of Abnormal Psychology

“GAH! Now I’m worried about my worrying! What do I do?!”

Other than worry about it some more? Worrying seems largely to be a problem of attention:

Research suggests that individuals with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) show an attention bias for threat-relevant information. However, few studies have examined the causal role of attention bias in the maintenance of anxiety and whether modification of such biases may reduce pathological anxiety symptoms. In the present article, the authors tested the hypothesis that an 8-session attention modification program would (a) decrease attention bias to threat and (b) reduce symptoms of GAD. Participants completed a probe detection task by identifying letters (E or F) replacing one member of a pair of words. The authors trained attention by including a contingency between the location of the probe and the nonthreat word in one group (Attention Modification Program; AMP) and not in the other (attention control condition; ACC). Participants in the AMP showed change in attention bias and a decrease in anxiety, as indicated by both self-report and interviewer measures. These effects were not present in the ACC group. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that attention plays a causal role in the maintenance of GAD and suggest that altering attention mechanisms may effectively reduce anxiety.

Source: “Attention modification program in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder.” from Journal of Abnormal Psychology

Nobody can really stop paying attention, our brains don’t work like that. What you can do is shift your attention. Focusing on the possible benign outcomes of whatever you’re worrying about has been shown to help:

This research investigated whether increasing access to benign outcomes of ambiguous events decreases excessive worry. Participants reporting high levels of worry were assigned either to practice in accessing benign meanings of threat-related homographs and emotionally ambiguous scenarios or to a control condition in which threatening or benign meanings were accessed with equal frequency. Results were assessed by use of a breathing focus task that involved categorizing the valence of thought intrusions before and after an instructed worry period and a test of working memory capacity available to participants while worrying. In comparison with the control group, the benign group reported fewer negative thought intrusions (as rated by both participants and an assessor) and less anxiety during the breathing focus task and showed greater residual working memory capacity while worrying. These findings suggest that enhancing access to benign outcomes is an effective method of reducing both the persistence of worry and its detrimental consequences.

Source: “Looking on the bright side: Accessing benign meanings reduces worry.” from Journal of Abnormal Psychology

I’m not a doctor, and this isn’t a replacement for real treatment if you’re experiencing serious problems, but if you find yourself just worrying a little too much, the above might get you back on the right track or at least give you a better understanding of what’s going on.

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Will you be able to cope when tragedy strikes?

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Eric Barker  -  
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No, I’m not selling insurance. You may wonder about your ability to deal with extreme adversity — or even extremely positive events. Turns out we can usually anticipate major events and quickly adapt. Chances are, you’ll be fine:

This paper addresses the question of when and to what extent individuals are affected by major positive and negative life events, including changes in financial situation, marital status, death of child or spouse and being a victim of crime. The key advantage of our data is that we are able to identify these events on a quarterly basis rather than on the yearly basis used by previous studies. We find evidence that life events are not randomly distributed, that individuals to a large extent anticipate major events and that they quickly adapt. These effects have important implications for the calculation of monetary values needed to compensate individuals for life events such as crime or death of spouse. We find that our new valuation methodology that incorporates these dynamic factors produces considerably smaller compensation valuations than those calculated using the standard approach.

Source: “Happiness Dynamics with Quarterly Life Event Data” from Social Norms and Social Capital

The anticipation of difficult events is almost always far worse than the events are. Your mind can often be your own worst enemy.

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Can living like you’re young prevent aging?

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At some point we all wish we could turn back the clock. But is it as easy as merely acting as if you were still younger? To a good degree, the answer may be yes.

Via BBC:

Prof Langer recruited a group of elderly men all in their late 70s or 80s for what she described as a “week of reminiscence”. They were not told they were taking part in a study into ageing, an experiment that would transport them 20 years back in time.

The psychologist wanted to know if she could put the mind back 20 years would the body show any changes.

The men were split into two groups. They would both be spending a week at a retreat outside of Boston.

But while the first group, the control, really would be reminiscing about life in the 50s, the other half would be in a timewarp. Surrounded by props from the 50s the experimental group would be asked to act as if it was actually 1959.

They watched films, listened to music from the time and had discussions about Castro marching on Havana and the latest Nasa satellite launch – all in the present tense.

Dr Langer believed she could reconnect their minds with their younger and more vigorous selves by placing them in an environment connected with their own past lives.

And she was determined to remove any prompt for them to behave as anything but healthy individuals. The retreat was not equipped with rails or any gadgets that would help older people. Right from the off she was determined to ensure they looked after themselves.

One man discarded his walking stick

When they got off the bus at the retreat, Prof Langer did not help the men carry their suitcases in. “I told them they could move them an inch at a time, they could unpack them right at the bus and take up a shirt at a time.”

The men were entirely immersed in an era when they were 20 years younger.

Understandably, Prof Langer herself had doubts. “You have to understand, when these people came to see if they could be in the study and they were walking down the hall to get to my office, they looked like they were on their last legs, so much so that I said to my students ‘why are we doing this? It’s too risky’.”

But soon the men were making their own meals. They were making their own choices. They weren’t being treated as incompetent or sick.

Pretty soon she could see a difference. Over the days, Prof Langer began to notice that they were walking faster and their confidence had improved. By the final morning one man had even decided he could do without his walking stick.

As they waited for the bus to return them to Boston, Prof Langer asked one of the men if he would like to play a game of catch, within a few minutes it had turned into an impromptu game of “touch” American football.

Obviously this kind of anecdotal evidence does not count for much in a study.

But Prof Langer took physiological measurements both before and after the week and found the men improved across the board. Their gait, dexterity, arthritis, speed of movement, cognitive abilities and their memory was all measurably improved.

Their blood pressure dropped and, even more surprisingly, their eyesight and hearing got better. Both groups showed improvements, but the experimental group improved the most.

Prof Langer believes that by encouraging the men’s minds to think younger their bodies followed and actually became “younger”.


What makes medication 2-4x as effective? Adding a placebo:

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via eurekalert.org:

Researchers used the placebo effect to successfully treat psoriasis patients with one quarter to one half of their usual dose of a widely used steroid medication, according to an early study published online today in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. Early results in human patients suggest that the new technique could improve treatment for several chronic diseases that involve mental state or the immune system, including asthma, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain.

By designing treatment regimens that mix active drug and placebo, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center hope to maximize drug benefits, reduce side effects, increase the number of patients who take their medicine and extend the use of drugs otherwise limited by addiction risk or toxicity. Using a fraction of the usual drug dose to get the same effect could also make possible a dramatic and timely reduction in healthcare costs, according to the authors.

The publication is a product of decades of research in the emerging field of “psychoneuro-immunology,” which holds that the ability of the human immune system to fight disease is closely linked with a person’s mind. Thoughts and moods are captured in neurochemicals that cause the release of hormones which interact with disease-fighting cells.

The current research team chose psoriasis for their first human experiments because it is chronic, gets worse when patients feel stress and involves the immune system. The condition causes pain and disability in four million Americans as inherited traits and irritants cause the immune system to trigger the too fast production of skin cells, resulting in red, scaly patches of dead skin.

“Our study provides evidence that the placebo effect can make possible the treatment of psoriasis with an amount of drug that should be too small to work,” said Robert Ader, Ph.D., M.D.(hc), distinguished university professor in the University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry. “While these results are preliminary, we believe the medical establishment needs to recognize the mind’s reaction to medication as a powerful part of many drug effects, and start taking advantage of it,” said Ader, principal investigator of the study. The placebo effect, obviously, cannot help unconscious patients, or replace substances that the body itself is unable to produce, he added. In the absence of functioning islet cells, for example, placebos cannot stimulate the release of insulin in a Type l diabetic.

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