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Brain blog showcase: Students “research the headlines”

by on 2018/06/25

At Research the Headlines we explore how research is discussed in the media. We try to add additional details to existing coverage, or help our readers get a clearer understanding of how new research might make its way from “lab to headline”. Through different activities, we also help others develop the skills needed to become more critical consumers of both research and media reporting; for example, via our How to “Research the Headlines” series and our “Rewrite the Headlines” workshops and competition for primary school children.

Many of our contributors also use the ideas behind Research the Headlines in their teaching. In one of his undergraduate courses, Alan Gow (Heriot-Watt University) has his students find a recent media article related to lifestyle factors and brain health. Their task is to describe the original research that report is based on in a manner accessible to non-experts, as well as evaluating the media coverage. A key aim of these “brain blogs” is to explain the important concepts and take home messages, and to highlight issues in interpretation either in the media report or the underlying research.

Over the course of this week we’re showcasing the work of four students, all recent graduates in Psychology at Heriot-Watt. The blogs are presented as submitted by the students; they’ve not been edited. We hope you enjoy reading their work, and learning a bit more about the topics too! If you’re interested in using this approach in your own teaching, you can contact Alan Gow (A.J.Gow@hw.ac.uk) for more information and materials.

Starting the “brain blog” showcase, we have…

Maybe not too relaxing a retirement? Testing the use it or lose it hypothesis

by Amy Ogle

For many people there comes a point where, no matter how many years they have spent cultivating their career, they want to retire. For some it may be a goal they have been working towards in their final years of employment, to relax and rest their brain. Well, before you begin planning your retirement party, according to an article published recently in The Telegraph, retirement may cause your brain functioning to ‘rapidly’ decline. Where does this story come from, and, more importantly, is it accurate?

What does the research say?

Baowen Xue and colleagues conducted the research the article is based on. The researchers were testing the ‘use it or lose it’ hypothesis, which argues that in order to maintain thinking and reasoning abilities in older age, you must continue to engage in activities which stimulate your brain. The focus of the study was retirement, as the researchers argued that retirement from a cognitively demanding job is likely to have a detrimental effect on thinking and reasoning skills. The study used data from 3,433 participants from the Whitehall II cohort, an on-going, large-scale study of ageing. Participants had completed a variety of tasks designed to test various thinking and reasoning skills, first before retirement, and continuing every 2-3 years. Those taking part were also given the opportunity to record their employment and health status at each testing phase, allowing participants to explain whether or not retirement was the result of illness. This was an important point, as a long-term illness may have an affect on an individual’s cognitive ability, and thus could have confused results by making it appear as though it was retirement causing the effect, as opposed to the illness.

The researchers found that, of the cognitive abilities tested, verbal memory, or more simply memory for words, showed the greatest decline after retirement, with a 38% increase in speed of decline. The other cognitive skills measured showed normal age-related decline, but this did not increase significantly after retirement. They also examined the effect employment grade had, and found that those from higher employment grades had slower declines before retirement than those in lower employment grades. This suggested that the high cognitive demand of those jobs created a protective effect. However, after retirement this effect disappeared and both employment grades had similar rates of decline.

What does the media say?

The Telegraph’s headline read ‘Retirement causes brain function to rapidly decline, warn scientists’ which, while true to the findings of the study, does somewhat exaggerate the effects found. It cannot be argued that a 38% increase in speed of decline is worryingly high, however it was only verbal memory that was affected, and not total brain function as the headline suggests. As well as this, the study concludes that it was the loss of stimulating environment that caused the decline, rather than simply retiring. Although the researchers did not investigate participant’s leisure activities after retirement, if the use-it-or-lose-it hypothesis holds true, retirees who continue to engage their brain should not see such an increase in decline.

The somewhat misleading headline aside, the overall coverage of the study was mostly accurate, though there were a few glaring issues. The article begins by summarising the key finding of the study, however, they report that the declines were found in short term memory. Verbal memory is a form of short-term memory, however as the study tested verbal memory specifically, and not short term memory more broadly, to be fully accurate the article should have specified verbal memory. Despite this minor issue, the overall findings of the study are well reported and easy to understand. An important point mentioned within the article was identifying that loss of regular mental stimulation speeds up, as opposed to causes, the onset of dementia and memory loss. However, the article then begins to discuss Alzheimer’s in more detail, which is largely irrelevant to the study, as the researchers were not examining dementia or Alzheimer’s. Towards the end, the article describes clearly and succinctly how the study was conducted, with the methods reported accurately. When summarising the researcher’s conclusions, the article even points out that verbal memory does decline naturally with age. Despite this, it is interesting to note that the article does not mention at any point the protective effect found in those from higher employment grades. This was an important point, as it supported the idea that the mental stimulation from those cognitively demanding job positions was having a beneficial effect, thus supporting the idea of maintaining a stimulating environment during retirement.

The final verdict

While The Telegraph accurately described the findings of this study, those nearing retirement should not be worried. By taking part in leisure activities that engage your brain, the protective effects offered by any career will be maintained into retirement.

References

Knapton, S. (2018, January 22). Retirement causes brain function to rapidly decline, warn scientists. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2018/01/22/retirement-causes-brain-function-rapidly-decline-warn-scientists/

Xue, B., Cadar, D., Fleischmann, M., Standfeld, S., Carr, E., Kivimaki, M., … Head, J. (2017) Effect of retirement on cognitive function: The whitehall ii cohort study. European Journal of Epidemiology, doi: 10.1007/s10654-017-0347-7

From → Psychology

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