It is a popular notion that keeping our brains active may keep our minds sharp as we age. Now, a new study applies this approach to employment, suggesting that people who work in more complex jobs – such as lawyers, social workers and architects – may have better memory skills later in life than those who do less complex work.
The research team – including Alan Gow, PhD, of Heriot-Watt University and the Center for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology in Scotland, UK – publish their findings in the journal Neurology.
To reach their findings, the team analyzed 1,066 individuals from Scotland with an average age of 70.
Each participant was required to undergo cognitive tests – which specifically looked at memory, processing speed and overall thinking ability – and the team recorded participants’ IQ scores from tests they took at age 11. In addition, participants provided information on their past and/or present employment.
Using the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, the researchers scored each participant dependent on the complexity of their jobs within three categories: working with people, data and objects.
The team explains that jobs that would score highly for complexity in terms of working with people, for example, might be a lawyer, surgeon or social worker, while low-scoring complex jobs in this category might be a factory worker, painter or carpet fitter.
Jobs that would score highly in complexity involving working with data might be an architect, musician or graphic designer, while low-scoring jobs in this field might be a construction worker, food server or telephone operator.
Results of the study revealed that the cognitive test scores of participants who had complex jobs that involved working with both people and data – such as teaching or management – were 1-2% better than the scores of participants who worked in less complex jobs.
The researchers say that this association is comparable to other factors that have been linked to better cognitive function later in life, such as not smoking.
These results remained even after the team accounted for other influential factors, such as participants IQ aged 11, the years spent in education and the environment in which participants lived.
Commenting on their findings, Gow says:
“These results suggest that more stimulating work environments may help people retain their thinking skills, and that this might be observed years after they have retired. Our findings have helped to identify the kinds of job demands that preserve memory and thinking later on.”
Speaking of the reasons behind this association, Gow points to two theories that have been suggested in the past. One is that a stimulating work environment may boost an individual’s “cognitive reserve,” meaning that the brain can function effectively regardless of damage. Another theory is that people who have better thinking skills initially are able to work in more complex jobs.
According to Gow, the results of their study support both of these ideas. “Factoring in people’s IQ at age 11 explained about 50% of the variance in thinking abilities in later life, but it did not account for all of the difference,” he notes. “That is, while it is true that people who have higher cognitive abilities are more likely to get more complex jobs, there still seems to be a small advantage gained from these complex jobs for later thinking skills.”
Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that doing shift work for 10 years or more could impair cognitive functioning.