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4 habits to help you stay mentally sharp in retirement

Think ahead about volunteering and other social activities you can do to keep isolation—and its associated cognitive declines—at bay. 
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Sheila Callahan has been doing practice runs of her upcoming retirement for the last decade. At least, that’s how the 63-year-old looks back on her summers since becoming a teacher. She’s spent the summer months sailing, gardening, and playing pickleball. But once the final school bell rings this year, Callahan will become a full-time retiree. 

The “I’m retiring” announcement requires a lot of pre-planning that goes way beyond thinking about the financial piece of your future. Respondents to the longitudinal Survey of Health, Aging, and Retirement in Europe from all 17 countries involved displayed accelerated memory decline after retirement—regardless of financial stability and other factors. But there are ways to slow cognitive decline as you age.

While Callahan has summer figured out, she knows that winters in her home city of Alexandria, Va., aren’t as friendly to her favorite hobbies. Since she lives alone, she knows she has to plan ahead for those months. As many people learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation can be harsh on cognitive abilities in older adults. So Callahan has already started thinking about volunteering and other social activities she can do throughout the cooler months to keep isolation—and its associated cognitive declines—at bay. 

“I can’t help but notice all of my declines. You know, the knees. And I can’t remember names. But I just choose to proceed nonetheless,” says Callahan. It helps that she has good retiree role models. “I sail with a guy who is in his nineties, and I go hear jazz with a couple who are [both] 93 and sharp as can be.”

Stay—or get—connected

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has made it his mission to help Americans find and maintain social connections. Spending too much time isolated and disconnected from other people can really wallop a person’s health, including an increase of 50% in the risk of developing dementia for older adults. A 2020 report said about one-quarter of adults over the age of 65 are socially isolated. With work hours freed up, you have time to take classes in everything from art to philosophy. Do some volunteering. Or call that friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with and turn your talks into a weekly walk, class, or other event. And, of course, there’s always pickleball, one of the most social sports around.

Don’t stop moving

One of the essential ways to keep your brain working its best as you age is, with apologies to songwriter, to move it move it. Your body, that is. Even if exercise wasn’t always (or ever) a must-do while you were working, it’s not too late. No matter your age, making exercise a priority—whether that’s working out at the gym or hiking or swimming or whatever activity you choose—you’ll achieve a “higher later-life cognitive state,” according to a recent study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. (Yes, an ongoing history of exercise is even better for the brain but until time travel is invented, starting now is the best way to go.) 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity weekly. If you need a walking buddy and can afford the costs associated with pup upkeep, get a dog. Along with the, on average, 22 minutes more you’ll walk per day, pet ownership can also protect against cognitive declines, according to the Health and Retirement Study

Send stress packing

Along with, possibly, adding minutes to your fitness count, sex increases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that impacts memory, and reduces cortisol, a hormone that’s released when you’re stressed out. Those are, quite simply, the exact directions you want those chemicals to go, as there’s evidence that both lead to improved cognition. Researchers back in 2017 knew something good was going on with the sexual activity-brain connection though, at the time, they weren’t sure of the why. But research participants’ results made it clear that weekly sexual activity was linked to improved brain function in adults 50-83. 

Both sex with a partner and masturbation can help people sleep better, and sleep has long been proven as a protective measure against cognitive decline. But not too much sleep, which, surprisingly, can lead to a raft of health issues, including depression. Shoot for seven to nine hours of sleep per night, according to the National Institute on Aging. (If you find yourself unable to sleep or sleeping too much, talk to your doctor. You may need to undergo a sleep study to find the root cause of your sleep issues.)

But sex isn’t the only way to put your body to work to reduce stress levels. Study after study has made it clear that yoga provides a powerful balm against stress. If getting started feels intimidating, find a local yoga class and just let the instructor know you’re new to the practice. Most will help you get set up and offer extra attention to help you learn yoga poses. Or consider starting with online classes. One of YouTube’s most popular yoga channels, Yoga with Adriene, is 12 million subscribers strong and offers hundreds of free classes for every experience level.

Not only is it important to cut back on stress, but also avoid creating new stressors for yourself. Keep to the retirement budget you set. With 72% of Americans feeling stressed about money, as documented in the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America report, it’s best to keep your finances in control. Didn’t set up a budget yet? It’s never too late. If possible, work with a professional financial advisor who can help you understand how much money you’ll really need versus how much you think you’ll need. Then, stick to that budget.

Find a new way to work

For some people, retirement isn’t so much a choice as a feeling that they’re being pushed out. That their retirement announcement ultimately stems more from a perception that coworkers think they’ve aged out of being useful or that they’re too slow or forgetful.

Researchers call this driver of retirement as the “the worn-out syndrome.” Sound familiar? Don’t let ageism determine how you live. Staying busy with meaningful work (that includes volunteering) keeps the brain active. There’s no reason you have to stay retired. If you enjoy your work, find a place that will appreciate your contributions at every age. Or consider a part-time job. After all, you’ve got a busy schedule: You’ve got hobbies to take up and a dog to walk.

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