Toronto -- While early retirement has been linked to health benefits such as improved sleep and reduced alcohol consumption, U.S. researchers have found that it may also accelerate cognitive decline in seniors.

Academics from Binghamton University in New York examined data from China’s New Rural Pension Scheme (NRPS) and the Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Survey (CHARLS) to see how the program’s benefits affected the cognitive abilities of those aged 60 and older.

Due to its rapidly aging population and higher life expectancies, China introduced the NRPS in rural regions of the country in 2009, to deal with increasing poverty and health issues among seniors.

“The program was introduced on the basis of an economy’s needs and capacity, in particular to alleviate poverty in old age,” Plamen Nikolov, assistant professor of economics at Binghamton University, explained in a press release.

Although the pension program allowed seniors in these areas to retire earlier in life, the researchers said there were “significant negative effects” on the cognition functioning of this group.

“Individuals in the areas that implement the NRPS score considerably lower than individuals who live in areas that do not offer the NRPS program,” Nikolov said. “Over the almost 10 years since its implementation, the program led to a decline in cognitive performance by as high as almost a fifth of a standard deviation on the memory measures we examine.”

According to the study, the largest indicator of cognitive decline in the subjects was “delayed recall,” which is widely considered an early predictor of dementia.

What’s more, the researchers found that women experienced more negative effects than men.

“The results support the mental retirement hypothesis that decreased mental activity results in the worsening of cognitive skills,” Nikolov said.

The researchers said they were surprised to see their discoveries regarding NRPS were in line with the negative findings in higher-income countries, such as the U.S., England, and in the European Union.

“We were surprised to find that pension benefits and retirement actually resulted in reduced cognitive performance,” Nikolov said.

As for why early retirement was linked to cognitive decline, the researchers said reduced social interactions could play a role.

“Social engagement and connectedness may simply be the single most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age,” Nikolov said.

In a separate study, the academics said they found the introduction of pension benefits led to other positive health effects, including improved sleep and reduced alcohol consumption and smoking.

Despite these potential health benefits, the researchers said the seniors’ cognitive decline was a more pressing matter to address.

“For cognition among the elderly, it looks like the negative effect on social engagement far outweighed the positive effect of the program on nutrition and sleep,” Nikolov said.

The researchers said they hope their findings will result in new policies that will address the problem of cognitive decline in old age during retirement.

“We show robust evidence that retirement has important benefits. But it also has considerable costs,” Nikolov said. “Cognitive impairments among the elderly, even if not severely debilitating, bring about a loss of quality of life and can have negative welfare consequences.”

Nikolov suggested that policymakers tailor pension programs to “buffer” the reduction of social engagement and mental activities often seen during retirement.