04 April 2014

Mentally demanding jobs keep brains sharp

A study suggests that working in a job that involves complex mental processing is related to higher levels of cognitive functioning not only before retirement but after retirement as well.


People with mentally challenging jobs, like air traffic controllers, doctors and financial analysts, tend to stay mentally sharper while on the job and following retirement, results of a new study suggest.

"Working in a job that involves a lot of thinking, analysing, problem solving, creativity, and other complex mental processing is related to higher levels of cognitive functioning not only before retirement (while we are still working) but after retirement as well," lead author Gwenith G. Fisher, of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, told Reuters Health in an email. "The characteristics of our jobs may affect our health and well-being even after we retire," she added.

Read:  Active minds retain cognitive skills

This is not the first study to suggest a link between mental demands on the job and workers' mental function. "Other studies have looked at mentally demanding occupations and risk for dementia and the jury is out there," Dr Deniz Erten-Lyons told Reuters Health.

Better cognitive function

Erten-Lyons, a neurologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, was not involved in the new study. Some researchers have found that people who have jobs requiring a lot of thought and independent decision-making tend to have better cognitive function.

Likewise, others have reported that workers with less mentally demanding jobs lose thinking and memory skills quicker than workers with more mental demands. Less research has focused specifically on the association between work demands and mental functioning prior to and after retirement, however.

Read: Life after retirement

To investigate, Fisher and her colleagues analysed data from participants in the long-term Health and Retirement Study, a collaboration between the National Institute of Ageing and the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

The current report is based on 4 182 adults who worked for pay in a specific job for at least 10 years and retired during the 18-year study period, from 1992 to 2010. These adults were 51 to 61 years old when they entered the study.

Mental status at retirement

The mental demands of their jobs were determined based on an analysis of the Occupational Information Network database, developed by the US Department of Labour to assess various characteristics of different occupations and workers.

Consistent with the researchers' predictions, adults who worked in jobs with higher mental demands were more likely to exhibit better memory before retirement and a slower decline in memory post-retirement than those who worked in less mentally demanding occupations, Fisher and her colleagues report.

When they looked specifically at mental status, which was assessed by backwards counting ability and tests similar to those used to diagnose dementia, the investigators found that seniors in mentally challenging occupations again tended to have higher mental status at retirement and a slower decline afterward.

"These results suggest that choosing an occupation requiring a variety of mental processes or re-designing less cognitively complex jobs to be more cognitively complex . . . may be beneficial to employees," the authors write in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

Protection against cognitive decline

They took people's education, income and health into account when conducting the analysis. But the study still doesn't prove that the jobs, themselves, were protective against cognitive decline.

According to Erten-Lyons, "a lot of things increase a person's risk for dementia" and it is difficult to take all of those things into consideration with such a large study population.

 On the other hand, the large population was one of the strengths of this study, Erten-Lyons said, as was the long study period. "My message from this paper and all the work related to this," said Erten-Lyons, is that "cognitively-stimulating activity improves mental function, (regardless) of occupation.”

Citing the benefits of crocheting and playing certain video games, for instance, she added, "mental activity and stimulation is good for your brain. It may come through an occupation or it may come from other activities," she said.

Read more:
Enhancing cognition in older adults
Men have higher risk for cognitive impairment

Socialising may keep elderly minds sharp


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