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Lois M. Collins: How to retire without losing your mind

When I think about retirement, I picture the chance to visit places I've never been, to sleep in a little longer, to follow my whims instead of a schedule. It's a vision that's part fantasy, part what I've witnessed as older siblings and friends have retired and, though I love my line of work, I have to say the fantasy is pretty delightful.

I'll go to Ireland. I'll sharpen my woodworking skills and make new cabinets for the house. I'll …

It's not always easy to picture myself as anything other than the career identity I have carved as a journalist over close to four decades. Some days, I do that better than others. As years pass, I finally get why my dad never wanted to retire; he loved tuning pianos and figured he'd keep at it until the end — which he did.

But I also understand the choices my siblings have made to retire while they're young enough and healthy enough to get out and about and do the things for which they didn't have time when they were working full-time and raising kids.

Two weeks ago, I attended the Age Boom Academy, where journalists from around the country met with an international group of experts to talk about aging. It's a program from the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center and the Columbia School of Journalism. Retirement figured prominently in the conversations and presentations. And I find that I am what I would consider "differently befuddled" as I ponder retirement as a personal choice, rather than an abstract issue.

There's another wild card in the mix that I hadn't given much thought to and it's pretty much all I can think about now: What happens cognitively to me when I don't have the stimulation of my job to keep me sharp?

Ursula Staudinger, a psychologist, researcher and co-founder of the Columbia aging center, has done considerable research on work, retirement and cognition. It's too real a consideration to be overlooked. People who retire early can lose cognitive ability if they don't stay challenged — as in doing complex tasks, continuing to build skills and finding mental stimulation.

It certainly doesn't sound as simple as working a crossword puzzle before bed each night.

Staudinger told us that work alone isn't magic. Boring work can be mind-numbing and harm cognition, too. People on an assembly line doing the same task over and over can lose their cognitive edge if they don't mix things up and vary their tasks. Cross-training helps that. Trying new things or doing old things new ways may help.

There's no question boredom and demotivation do not build cognition. People need to learn new things. Staudinger said people working in complex jobs are almost miraculously protected from cognitive decline. And it's easier for people who are employed to maintain cognition than it is for people who stop unless they have some kind of plan. It's quite likely that people are more challenged at work than they are if they say home.

There's likely a social impact, as well. People typically interact with colleagues in the workplace, while interactions might be less common at home, unless one makes it a point to socialize. She believes just seeing people and reading their facial expressions and hearing their intonations and interacting adds some value.

Others agree that work is good. Robert Willis, an expert from the University of Michigan, said early retirement can create a "pretty large decline in memory."

Those who fare better are the folks who continue to learn. It's great to try to hang onto your skills and what you know, but it's the learning itself that most helps the brain.

So if you choose to leave work behind, don't just relax. Find challenges. Do hard things that have meaning to you. Learn a language or how to rewire the basement. Make friends, tackle challenges and keep going.

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