Livin' on the MDedge

Early retirement and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad cognitive decline


The ‘scheme’ in the name should have been a clue

Retirement. The shiny reward to a lifetime’s worth of working and saving. We’re all literally working to get there, some of us more to get there early, but current research reveals that early retirement isn’t the relaxing finish line we dream about, cognitively speaking.

Elderly couple visit the doctor. FatCamera/Getty Images

Researchers at Binghamton (N.Y.) University set out to examine just how retirement plans affect cognitive performance. They started off with China’s New Rural Pension Scheme (scheme probably has a less negative connotation in Chinese), a plan that financially aids the growing rural retirement-age population in the country. Then they looked at data from the Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Survey, which tests cognition with a focus on episodic memory and parts of intact mental status.

What they found was the opposite of what you would expect out of retirees with nothing but time on their hands.

The pension program, which had been in place for almost a decade, led to delayed recall, especially among women, supporting “the mental retirement hypothesis that decreased mental activity results in worsening cognitive skills,” the investigators said in a written statement.

There also was a drop in social engagement, with lower rates of volunteering and social interaction than people who didn’t receive the pension. Some behaviors, like regular alcohol consumption, did improve over the previous year, as did total health in general, but “the adverse effects of early retirement on mental and social engagement significantly outweigh the program’s protective effect on various health behaviors,” Plamen Nikolov, PhD, said about his research.

So if you’re looking to retire early, don’t skimp on the crosswords and the bingo nights. Stay busy in a good way. Your brain will thank you.

Indiana Jones and the First Smallpox Ancestor

Smallpox was, not that long ago, one of the most devastating diseases known to humanity, killing 300 million people in the 20th century alone. Eradicating it has to be one of medicine’s crowning achievements. Now it can only be found in museums, which is where it belongs.

genetic material of smallpox, a variola virus J. Nakano, USCDCP/Pixnio

Here’s the thing with smallpox though: For all it did to us, we know frustratingly little about where it came from. Until very recently, the best available genetic evidence placed its emergence in the 17th century, which clashes with historical data. You know what that means, right? It’s time to dig out the fedora and whip, cue the music, and dig into a recently published study spanning continents in search of the mythical smallpox origin story.

We pick up in 2020, when genetic evidence definitively showed smallpox in a Viking burial site, moving the disease’s emergence a thousand years earlier. Which is all well and good, but there’s solid visual evidence that Egyptian pharaohs were dying of smallpox, as their bodies show the signature scarring. Historians were pretty sure smallpox went back about 4,000 years, but there was no genetic material to prove it.

Since there aren’t any 4,000-year-old smallpox germs laying around, the researchers chose to attack the problem another way – by burning down a Venetian catacomb, er, conducting a analysis of historical smallpox genetics to find the virus’s origin. By analyzing the genomes of various strains at different periods of time, they were able to determine that the variola virus had a definitive common ancestor. Some of the genetic components in the Viking-age sample, for example, persisted until the 18th century.

Armed with this information, the scientists determined that the first smallpox ancestor emerged about 3,800 years ago. That’s very close to the historians’ estimate for the disease’s emergence. Proof at last of smallpox’s truly ancient origin. One might even say the researchers chose wisely.


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