Challenging work involving public speaking and strategy development could benefit long-term cognitive health.
The research, published in Neurology, suggests that workers who are required to speak more, develop strategies, manage others and resolve conflict may be better off than their co-workers as time progresses.
"Our study is important because it suggests that the type of work you do throughout your career may have even more significance on your brain health than your education does," explains study author Francisca Then from the University of Leipzig, Germany. "Education is a well-known factor that influences dementia risk."
Indeed, along with education, research has demonstrated that keeping the mind active with puzzles and games and keeping socially active may delay the onset of dementia and reduce mental decline.
In the new study, the researchers assessed 1,054 individuals aged 75 and above from the Leipzig Longitudinal Study of the Aged, a representative population-based cohort study.
Each participant underwent cognitive testing - the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) - every 1.5 years to evaluate their memory and thinking abilities for a period of 8 years. They also discussed their work history and had to categorize the types of tasks they did into one of three groups:
- Executive tasks, such as conflict resolution and strategy development
- Verbal tasks, such as interpreting and evaluating information
- Fluid tasks, such as data analysis.
The researchers found that participants who had performed tasks at the highest level of all three categories during their careers obtained the highest scores in the MMSE. These participants were also found to have the slowest rate of cognitive decline over the 8-year study duration.
'Challenging work conditions may also promote positive health effects'
Participants with the highest level of all three categories of tasks experienced a rate of cognitive decline that was half the rate experienced by participants whose careers had involved a low level of mentally demanding work tasks.
Out of the three categories, involvement with high levels of executive and verbal tasks was associated with slower rates of cognitive decline.
In the MMSE, even a small decline in the amount of points scored suggests a clinically-relevant deficit in memory and thinking abilities. In comparison with participants with low levels of executive tasks, participants with a high level of executive tasks scored an average of two MMSE points higher at the start of the study and five MMSE points at its end.
Similarly, participants whose careers had involved a high level of verbal tasks experienced a cognitive decline on average two MMSE points less than those whose careers involved a low level of verbal tasks.
"The results suggest that a professional life enriched with work tasks stimulating verbal intelligence and executive functions may help to sustain a good cognitive functioning in old age," conclude the authors. "The findings thus emphasize that today's challenging work conditions may also promote positive health effects."
The researchers also controlled their findings for sociodemographic and health-related factors, although as it was an observational study the team is unable to confirm causality.
"Challenges at work may indeed be a positive element, if they build up a person's mental reserve in the long-term," Dr. Then concludes.
Medical News Today recently reported on a study with similar findings. The research suggested that having a more challenging job may prolong survival for people with frontotemporal dementia.