Background The increasing prevalence of cognitive decline (CD) in old age has become a global challenge. Our study aims to enhance understanding of this phenomenon by evaluating longitudinal effects of personal and national determinants on memory decline (MD) among European retirees. Methods We used data from two interviews collected in 12 European (EU) countries and in Israel by SHARE - a multidisciplinary, cross-national bank of survey data. Our sample included 11,930 retirees aged 50+ who were interviewed at baseline (T1) and again four years later (T2). MD was evaluated by the change in the recalled number of words at T2 compared to those remembered at T1. Ten words were presented at each interview and participants were asked to repeat them, first immediately and again after a few minutes (maximum 20 words). The scale for evaluation of change over time ranged from -20 to + 20. Results Except for gender, all of our explanatory variables had a significant effect on MD including age, education, health/function status, depressive symptoms, early retirement, active lifestyle and EU-countries divided into four geographical regions. Decline over time in physical and mental health variables had an additional significant negative effect on memory. Conclusions These findings lead us to suggest focusing on what we know and are able to change in order to postpone MD. In addition to promotion of national policies to prolong years of education and participation in the workforce, we recommend introducing programs that encourage people to postpone retirement, and adjusting workplace conditions in order to enable older persons to continue contributing to the workforce. We also suggest promoting an active lifestyle among older adults, especially in Mediterranean and eastern European nations by implementing health and active leisure education programs. Key messages Declines in health and functioning negatively affect memory, while education and active lifestyle have a protective effect. Moreover, early retirement has a similar negative effect on memory change in each of the studied EU-regions even when controlling for all of the personal and behavioral factors.