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New data reveals that higher Social Security income helps the memory and mental functioning of older adults

Written by Diane Archer

As the population ages, it’s important that our policies help to prevent, reduce or delay cognitive impairments. We want to be sure that for as long as possible people can carry out daily activities. And, we want to avoid the financial and emotional costs that come with dementia. New research by Padmaja Ayyagari and David Friswold suggests that higher Social Security income helps the memory, knowledge, language and overall cognition of older adults.

Ayyagari and Friswold’s August 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research paper reveals the positive impact of Social Security income on cognitive function for older adults. It looks at whether the 1977 reduction in Social Security income for those born after 1917 led to a reduction in cognition.

Specifically the research shows that a $1,000 increase in Social Security annual income improves working memory 2.2%, knowledge, language and orientation 1.1%, and overall cognition 1.4%. It also shows that a $1,000 increase in Social Security annual income reduces the chance of being diagnosed as demented by 1.9% and the change of being diagnosed as cognitively impaired by 1%.

The authors suggest that the cost of increasing Social Security benefits could be offset by lower Medicare and Medicaid costs; higher Social Security benefits would mean fewer people needing costly treatment for cognitive impairments.

Prior research has shown that higher income can mean less financial stress and better access to care, both of which are associated with better cognition. Stress has been shown to reduce cognition for older adults. There is also a strong link between depression and reduced cognition. Stress and depression cause higher levels of corticosteroids that can affect memory.

Watch Robert Reich explain that we can afford to increase Social Security benefits and there are more reasons to do so.  A look at the international data on retirement income shows that Social Security benefits in the United States are stingy for a wealthy country. And, unless something changes in the next couple of months, Social Security benefits will not increase in 2016, a rare occurrence, at great cost to millions of older adults and people with disabilities.



  • It’s hard to concentrate when you’re worried about being able to afford rent and food. The nice clothes you own are developing holes worn right through the cloth and you know you can’t afford to replace them, even with low quality ones. You can’t afford to maintain a car and had to sell yours. And even bus fare is an expense that has to be considered and budgeted for. Nothing that requires money is insignificant because every penny is accounted for. Some months you have to skip doses of critical medications because you can’t afford the new higher prices every month. You put off going to the doctor until medical issues become emergencies. Then the really expensive visit to the emergency room will be charged off and eventually covered by tax dollars, and that is embarrassing because it has always been important to you to pay your own way. You denied yourself even small luxuries to save diligently during your working years so that you could live above the poverty level in retirement, then lost a huge percentage of your savings in the market crash. It seems short-sighted to me to deny any help to those who need it until their problems reach crisis level, then pay exponentially more just to help them back to subsistence. I know there are thousands more out there looking at this future along with me. And people wonder why we lose cognitive abilities. The reason is so obvious to me. Even a few hundred dollars a month would help immensely. Most of the 1% spend that on one nice restaurant dinner every month.

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