Mentally Stimulating Jobs Reduce Mental Decline

Brain in a Jar

Having a thinking job can ward off mental decline after retirement, study suggests.

If you are getting frustrated with the daily grind, you may be unhappy to hear your boring job could affect you well after retirement. A new study links mentally stimulating jobs with better cognitive ability later in life.

In a new study out of Colorado State University in Fort Collins and published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, researcher Gwenith G. Fisher and her team studied 4,182 people between the ages of 51 and 61 who kept a specific career for at least ten years and retired between 1992 and 2010. These people had been part of a long-term Health and Retirement Study run by the National Institute of Aging and the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

The researchers used data from cognitive tests for memory and reasoning skills, as well as questionnaires about the mental demands of their jobs, and compared that to the person’s occupation. The mental stimulation of the particular job was also assessed using the Occupational Information Network database from the U.S. Department of Labor. The more mentally stimulating jobs involved much thinking, decision making, problem solving, analyzing data, planning and developing objectives, and creativity. Often these jobs involved organizing large quantities of information or coordinating teams.

What the researchers found was that people in more mentally stimulating jobs, such as doctors, financial analysts, lawyers, air traffic controllers, and even project managers tended to have sharper minds while on the job. This was not surprising since previous studies have shown a link between having a less mentally demanding job and losing memory and thinking skills quicker. However, the current study also found that people with mentally stimulating jobs were sharper than their peers at retirement and managed to avoid cognitive decline longer in their retirement years. Although the differences were not as large at retirement age, there was a huge difference fifteen years later, with the retirees from more mentally stimulating jobs scoring fifty percent better on tests than their counterparts. This was the first study to look at the effects of a mentally stimulating career after retirement.

The study suggests that choosing a career requiring daily thought and mental challenges can have a long-term positive effect on your mental state. However, a stimulating career is not the only way to keep your brain in shape. Having other activities outside of work that require thinking can help keep your mind sharp as well. Playing chess in your spare time, writing as a hobby, reading books, or volunteering to maintain a charity’s computer network could help as well, even if you have a non-stimulating day job such as working on an assembly line. Data indicates it may be a good idea to start exercising your brain around mid-life to avoid future mental decline.

The study’s authors offer two possible explanations for why different occupations affect brain health after retirement. It is possible that using a brain more on the job encourages neurons to grow, so when these people lose some neurons with age, they still have enough to maintain their memory and cognitive ability. On the other hand, it may just be a matter of exercising the brain, maintaining mental capacity in the same way you would maintain muscles when exercising physically.

The takeaway from this study is that it may be a good idea to choose a more stimulating career if you can, and employers should look at making even repetitive jobs a little more mentally challenging if they can. However, no matter your career choice, you can always exercise and maintain your brain by keeping it active outside of work.

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