Mentally Stimulating Work Can Help To Fight Off Dementia

Deposit Photos

Does your job engage your mind? It might be essential for maintaining mental acuity as you grow older, according to recent research.

A study involving over 7,000 adults, aged 69 to 104, revealed that those with a background in mentally challenging occupations had a reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia after age 70, compared to individuals with less cognitively demanding job histories.

Study author Bjørn H. Strand, PhD, a research professor with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH)in Oslo, says, “The results of this study underscore the potential of cognitively stimulating work to boost cognitive reserve and delay the onset of cognitive decline. This study also supports the idea that the more you use your brain during early and midlife, the better equipped you are to ward off cognitive decline later in life.”

Measuring Occupational Stimulation and Cognition

In the article published this week in the journal Neurology, Dr. Strand and his team analyzed data on 305 unique occupations. They assessed the cognitive demands participants experienced data on 305 unique occupations.

They assessed the cognitive demands participants experienced in each job between ages 30 and 65 using a data tool called the routine task intensity index (RTI). This index is based on an equation that involves four scales to evaluate how much an occupation entails routine manual tasks and routine cognitive tasks compared with unstructured nonroutine cognitive tasks and interpersonal tasks.

“The assessment is not based on questionnaires of participants,” says Yuko Hara, PhD, director of Aging and Alzheimer’s Prevention at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, who was not involved in the research. “Everyone with the same occupation had the same RTI regardless of individual differences in tasks and responsibilities.”

Researchers measured occupational cognitive demands at least once when participants were younger than 50 and at least once when they were older than 50. After age 70, participants completed memory and thinking tests to assess whether they had mild cognitive impairment.

Compared to those who rated low on the RTI index, individuals with jobs involving a high level of routine work faced a 74 percent greater risk of developing mild cognitive impairment later in life and a 37 percent higher risk of dementia. The paper highlighted that 42 percent of those in jobs with the lowest cognitive demands were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, compared to 27 percent of those in jobs with the highest cognitive demands.

Understanding Routine vs. Nonroutine Tasks

Routine manual tasks, often found in factory work, require speed, control over equipment, and repetitive motions. Routine cognitive tasks, like those in bookkeeping and filing, demand precision and accuracy in repetitive activities.

The jobs with the lowest cognitive demands most commonly included mail carriers and custodians, as well as housekeepers, road workers, sanitation workers, and delivery service employees.

Nonroutine analytical tasks involve analyzing information, engaging in creative thinking, and interpreting information for others. Nonroutine interpersonal tasks focus on establishing and maintaining personal relationships, motivating others, and coaching.

Teaching was the most common job among those with the highest cognitive demands. Other nonroutine cognitive jobs included public relations specialists, computer programmers, engineers, electricians, software developers, mechanics, financial analysts, lawyers, and doctors.

Glen Finney, MD, director of the Memory and Cognition Program for Geisinger Health in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology says, “Simple repetitive or rote tasks don’t provide much cognitive stimulation, but I think that the level of structured to unstructured work isn’t as much a factor in cognitive stimulation as is the contents of the work itself.”

Dr. Finney recommends asking a series of questions to determine whether your work is or isn’t cognitively stimulating: “Is the job information-rich or simple? Is the work novel or is it the same from moment to moment and day to day? Are there any skills or problem-solving you have to bring to your tasks?”

Challenging the Brain Outside of Work

Not everyone can have a career that consistently stimulates the brain. For these individuals, Dr. Hara recommends engaging in cognition-building activities outside the workplace, such as taking a new class, reading books, learning a new language, or learning to play a musical instrument.

Dr. Finney, who was not involved in the research, also suggests focusing on other critical aspects of brain health, including physical exercise, diet, and social activities.

“Our results emphasize the importance of life-long learning and cognitive stimulation. It is never too late, or a waste of time, to start learning something new. All cognitively demanding activities later in life contribute to strengthening one’s cognitive reserve,” says Dr. Strand.