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Does retirement influence cognitive performance? The Whitehall II Study
  1. Beverly A Roberts1,
  2. Rebecca Fuhrer2,
  3. Michael Marmot1,
  4. Marcus Richards3
  1. 1Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London, UK
  2. 2Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
  3. 3MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Beverly A Roberts, Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh, 7 George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9JZ, UK; beverly.roberts{at}


Background Occupational work involves many factors capable of protecting cognition. The ‘disuse’ hypothesis suggests that removal of such factors at retirement may increase the risk of cognitive decline.

Objective To examine whether retirement is significantly associated with cognitive change after adjusting for preretirement cognitive function, personal, social, health and lifestyle factors, work characteristics and leisure activity.

Methods Participants were from the Whitehall II study, a prospective study of London-based Civil Servants. Short-term memory, the AH4 Part 1 (a test of inductive reasoning), verbal fluency and the Mill Hill Vocabulary Scale were collected at ages 38–60 years, and again, on average 5 years later, at 42–67 years, providing pre- and postretirement cognitive functioning assessments for 2031 participants (470 retired and 1561 working). Linear regression was used to test the association between retirement and cognitive performance adjusted for preretirement cognition.

Results Mean cognitive test scores increased between the two assessments. However, after adjusting for age, sex, education, occupational social class, Mill Hill score, work characteristics, leisure activities, and indicators of physical and mental health, those retired showed a trend towards smaller test score increases over 5 years than those still working, although this only reached 5% significance in one test (AH4; β=−0.7, 95% CI −1.2 to −0.09) and did not show a dose–response effect with respect to length of time in retirement.

Conclusions This trend is consistent with the disuse hypothesis but requires independent replication before it can be accepted as supportive in this respect.

  • Cognition
  • retirement
  • work
  • social class
  • cognitive epidemiology
  • psychology
  • disuse

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  • Funding The Whitehall II study has been supported by grants from the Medical Research Council (MRC); Economic and Social Research Council; British Heart Foundation; Health and Safety Executive; Department of Health; National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (Grant HL36310), National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Ageing (Grant AG13196); Agency for Health Care Policy Research (Grant HS06516); and the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation Research Networks on Successful Midlife Development and Socio-economic Status and Health. BR was funded by a Medical Research Council PhD studentship while carrying out this work. The Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council and Medical Research Council fund the University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology. RF holds and is supported by the Canada Research Chair in Psychosocial Epidemiology. MGM is supported by an MRC Professorship. MR is funded by the UK Medical Research Council.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Patient consent Obtained.

  • Ethics approval Ethics approval was provided by the University College London Medical School committee on the ethics of human research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.