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Retirement = brain mush?

Updated: Feb 20, 2021


I have many favourite things about my early retirement. One is that I'm a natural worrier, but these days I hardly seem to worry about anything. That feels good - thank you early retirement!


But I do have a hint of a worry - is early retirement turning my brain to mush? Perhaps to put it more correctly, will my early retirement cause or contribute to cognitive decline?


Back in my working life, my days were filled with tasks to be completed, negotiations to be handled, problems to be solved and deadlines to hit. Mental acuity, flexibility and judgement were in constantly demand. In retirement, I still have some tasks to do, problems to solve and deadlines, but not so many and mostly without much consequence if I don't get them done. Does the removal of the work/job stimulus have an effect on my brain?


Maybe, if these are symptoms:

  • I feel I'm slower now to get things done and to make decisions. Using booking a trip to see the Northern Lights as an example, I'm researching where and when to go but it's taking me forever. Each time I make a decision I seem to question it, dive into more research and don't complete the booking.

  • I find that I lose my train of thought, forget what I was going to say or wander to the kitchen but forget why. It's not a constant thing, but it happens often enough that I notice.


The first page of Google results isn't encouraging, full of pages mentioning early retirement and cognitive decline in the same breath. Layered on top, I have personal experience of seeing my mother suffer from Alzheimer's that started in her mid fifties.


I'm not going to pretend that I've done lots of research (I haven't), but I can see reasons to be concerned. As with any skill, the more we practice the better we get and, conversely, if we don't practice, our skill level will deteriorate. Engaging my brain was a necessity at work, it's a little more optional in retirement.


Fortunately, my previous worrier status has been replaced with optimism and a determination to be proactive. If I were to assume that early retirement does cause a risk of accelerated cognitive decline, what can I do about it?


  • Continue with my blog. It's not like work, but it kind of is. I have to think about what to write and ensure I meet my weekly deadline.

  • Exercise. Google is more positive here, with pages of search results like the mayoclinic.org saying "people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function".

  • Choose hobbies/interests that cause me to think and question. I'm starting to become more interested in history, something I've not paid much attention to previously. Trying to learn French, admittedly I'm hopeless, but it undeniably involves a lot of brain gymnastics.

  • Make new travel plans. I'm not a natural traveller which means the imagination, planning and then the actual travelling tests me and takes me out of my comfort zone. Added to the interesting things that we see and do on our trips, this has to be good for my brain.

  • Select an interesting and challenging project. I still have my camper conversion idea, or perhaps it could be a tiny home. Either would be a huge challenge: logistically, mentally and physically. If only Sally could see how much sense these ideas make!

  • See people to have varied conversations, discussions and debates with.

  • Continue to set myself targets.


I'm not suggesting that these things replace every part of the mental/cognitive aspects of work, but I'm sure they cover a good portion. Plus, they include a broader range of topics, which must be a benefit. The thing that's generally missing is the work related stress, I have no idea whether that helps or hinders our cognitive capacity, but life feels better without it.


Added to this, I've done more new/different things in the past four years since retiring early than I did in the previous twenty while working. I mostly enjoyed my career, but I now enjoy the early retired phase of my life.


So is early retirement turning my brain to mush? On the whole, I suspect it isn't, at least not too much - I suspect forgetting things or being a bit slow/researching too much is just what I've always been like. Is there a risk of mush? possibly, but I believe my early retirement life is active and interesting enough to still stimulate my mind.


I often say that the best thing about financial independence is the choices it gives us and I see my brain mush question in the same light. If I choose to do little other than watch TV all day, that might be inviting mush, but if I choose to be active, to fill much of my day with interesting things, I suspect my brain will be just fine...or at least no worse than it's always been🤣

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I'm really worried about dementia too. My mom got it when she was around 70. It won't be that long before I get there. It's a terrible disease. From what I understand, exercise is the most important thing. Keeping fit will help a lot. I guess it's good to keep your mind active too.

I suspect sleep is very important too. Stress could hurt that.

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Keeping our minds and bodies healthy hopefully helps, and is good for us in other ways. Fortunately I think we both score OK on these points. I'm sure that I forget things, or get sidetracked, more easily than I used to, and I have an awareness that my Mum didn't get to do as many things as she should have because of the Alzheimer's. Hopefully I'll be fine (my Dad is still going strong ) but I am trying to do things now, just in case I can't do them later.

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Hi David,


I do love your posts, they are always so relevant to conversations that Greg and I have. Almost like you're Facebook listening in 🤣. We both worry about this happening to us and we have noticed a real difference during lockdown to our ability to hold a conversation and to hold onto a thread within our brains. Travel has always been the thing that drove us and lockdown made us realise that we don't have enough "other" to stimulate us enough. We have things we like doing at home but not 24/7. We are concentrating on stretching our hobbies, which is why we think Spain (or simply a warmer climate) will work for us as it will …

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Hi Michelle,

Don't worry, you're safe, even if Facebook listening in were a thing, I guarantee I'm not smart enough to figure it out!

I suspect part of the difficulty in these Covid times is the uncertainty of when things will return to normal and when we will be able to make our choices. That's what frustrates me, planning seems a bit pointless if we aren't confident if or when we can put those plans into action.

I think my first year of early retirement has helped me weather the storm. Back in 2017, we were living in Dubai and Sally was still working, so I had to entertain myself when it was often +40°C which meant being indoors and…

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I like your comment about the FI community being resourceful. My instinct is that being early retired has helped me through the various lockdowns and restrictions that have come with Coronavirus. In my old life, many, maybe even most, of the things I did such as going to work, my chores etc were things that had to be done and weren't the result of me making choices. On the other hand, my activities in early retirement are mostly chosen/designed by me, which was good experience to manage my way through lockdowns etc as I felt confident that I could design a life that worked even in these circumstances. For sure I miss things and get frustrated knowing there are things…

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This post resonates with me after my initial enthusiasm for FI was dampened somewhat by stay at home orders, no holidays to plan or city culture and events to enjoy. With hindsight should I have cancelled retirement plans, joined the work from home revolution and occupied my mind productively? My employment involved too many long hours hunched at my desk often watching time tick by. Work life had its stressful moments to meet the odd deadline but generally it was a long day and a bored mind. Latterly l tried part time but it made little difference, I needed a change and longed for FI to try something different and to seek a healthier more varied life. Now in retireme…

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Hi Andrew (sorry for the comment replies not being in order),

It made me laugh realising that I made you laugh! But that aside, I can imagine that some people don't exercise their minds so much and imagine that could cause them to function less well. On the whole, I think I should escape that with my choice of activities that keep my body and brain quite active and therefore hopefully healthy - I'm planning to avoid the mush!

The French learning is tricky because it requires that we put ourselves into uncomfortable situations where we'll feel foolish, something one ordinarily tries to avoid. Our friends do something called "workaway" in France, where they swap their labour for accommodation/meals. By…

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