A Challenging Job Can Be Good for the Brain

September 2, 2015

Mentally demanding jobs can be stressful. But a challenging job may also be good for the brain and may possibly even help ward off Alzheimer’s.

Those are the results of a new study from Germany that found that over many years, professionals whose jobs require such skills as strategizing, speaking, resolving conflicts and managing others may be less likely to suffer from memory and thinking problems than those with less demanding jobs.

“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,” said the study’s lead author, Francisca S. Then, of the University of Leipzig. The findings were published in the medical journal Neurology, from the American Academy of Neurology.

Other studies have shown that having many years of schooling may help to protect the brain against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Experts theorize that the mental demands of education may build up a so-called cognitive reserve, or a rich network of brain cells and connections. If some brain cells are damaged through the progression of Alzheimer’s, enough cells remain to compensate for the loss, at least for a time, the thinking goes. 

This study looked at work histories among 1,054 men and women who were part of the Leipzig Longitudinal Study of the Aged, an ongoing study of Germans aged 75 and older who are representative of the general population. Study participants were given tests to assess their memory and thinking skills every one-and-a-half years for eight years.

The researchers asked the participants about their work histories and the kind of duties their jobs entailed. They categorized the tasks into three main groups: executive tasks, such as scheduling work and activities, developing strategies and resolving conflicts; verbal tasks, including evaluating and interpreting information; and fluid tasks, including those requiring focused attention and data analysis. 

Memory and thinking skills were rated according to the Mini-Mental State Examination, or MMSE, a commonly used test that scores people on a scale from 0 to 30. Scores of 24 to 30 are considered normal; those from 18 to 23 suggest mild cognitive impairment, a form of memory loss that can precede full-blown Alzheimer’s disease; and scores below 18 indicate likely dementia. In the test, even a decline of a few points can be a harbinger of a clinically significant problem.

The researchers found that people whose careers included the highest level of all three types of mental tasks scored highest on the thinking and memory tests by two points over people with the least challenging jobs.

People with challenging jobs also had the slowest rate of cognitive decline. Over eight years, their rate of decline was half the rate of participants with a low level of mentally demanding work tasks. High levels of executive and verbal tasks were particularly associated with slower rates of memory and thinking decline.

Participants whose jobs required a high degree of executive tasks scored two MMSE points higher on memory and thinking tests at the beginning of the study, and five points higher after eight years in the study compared to participants with the least mentally demanding jobs. Participants with a high level of verbal tasks declined, on average, two MMSE points less than those whose jobs required few verbal demands.

“Challenges at work may indeed be a positive element, if they build up a person’s mental reserve in the long-term,” Dr. Then concluded.  

Alzheimer’s is a years-long process, and many factors likely determine who develops dementia, including advancing age and the genes you inherit. But an increasing number of studies show that lifestyle factors such as education, exercise and having illnesses like diabetes or heart disease may also affect your risk. Mental demands throughout life, these findings suggest, may also play a role in who ultimately develops Alzheimer’s disease, or at what age symptoms first appear. 

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site, reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Francisca S. Then, PhD, Tobias Luck, PhD, Melanie Luippa PhD, et al: “Differential Effects of Enriched Environment at Work on Cognitive Decline in Old Age.” Neurology Vol. 84, pages 1-8, April, 2015.


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