When it comes to keeping your mind sharp well into old age, some job choices are better than others. (Photo by Getty Images)
How did you choose your career? In a recent LinkedIn survey, the majority of people, 56 percent, said the reputation of a potential employer is what most heavily influences where they decide to work. But the truth is, reputation may not be everything. You may also want to consider how challenging your work is. The mental effort your job requires affects your health long after you’ve left the company, according to a new study in the journal Neurology.
British researchers assessed the cognitive abilities — memory and processing speed, for example — of more than 1,000 older adults, and analyzed whether their former jobs influenced their scores. To do this, they categorized each career by “occupational complexity” in three areas: people, data, and things.
“A job regarded as more complex, in terms of work with people, might include negotiating or mentoring, whereas less complex jobs might involve taking instructions or helping,” study author Alan Gow tells Yahoo Health. Complex people-oriented professions include lawyer, social worker, surgeon, and probation officer, whereas factory worker, painter, and carpet layer are less socially taxing jobs, he says.
“Similarly, more complex jobs with data might require coordinating and synthesizing data,” says Gow, “whereas less complex jobs might be more likely to include copying or comparing data.” Examples of complex jobs in this category include architect, civil engineer, graphic designer, and musician, whereas less data-intensive careers include construction worker, bus conductor, and telephone operator, he says.
Complexity of “things” might mean preparing machines for operation or deciding which tools are appropriate for a job. Examples include machine setter and instrument maker, while less complex careers in this category are probation officer and bank manager, says Gow.
So how did job complexity affect mental sharpness later in life? Although the effect wasn’t huge, the 70-year-olds whose former occupations involved high levels of complexity with data and people performed better on memory and thinking tests — even after the researchers accounted for their IQ at age 11 and their level of education. “Complexity of things didn’t seem to be associated with cognitive ability,” says Gow. (However, he says, this finding needs to be replicated.)
One explanation: Careers with high levels of interpersonal and data complexity may build up something called your “cognitive reserve.”
“The brain develops a certain way of working — it establishes pathways that are either efficient or not,” says Ross Andel, an associate professor of aging studies at the University of South Florida. If you work in a challenging environment, your brain may form more efficient networks, potentially masking the negative effects of aging on your mental abilities. As you get older, “the brain is declining quite a bit, but because it has been taught how to work well through complex tasks, it will perform despite the damage,” Andel explains.
A large cognitive reserve might also mean that you maintain more volume in the brain over time, or that you have a larger repertoire of problem-solving skills, says Gow.
“It’s the ‘use it or lose it’ idea,” says Andel. If your line of work mentally challenges you — “we’re talking eight hours a day, 40 hours a week — that’s a tremendous amount of mental exercise,” compared to, say, reading a book or working a crossword puzzle for half an hour each day. “Sitting at a job where you’re disengaged for eight hours a day — that’s dangerous,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to mental decline if your office time isn’t exactly mentally demanding. “People may be limited in how much influence they have over the complexity of their job, but we can all look at ways to ensure we get more physically or socially engaged in our leisure time, for example,” says Gow. Train your brain to perform well long after retirement with these simple strategies:
Find a few hobbies
Your office isn’t the only place you can challenge your brain. In a 2014 study, Andel found that greater work complexity, both with people and data, was associated with better mental ability in old age. But so was participation in leisure activities, especially those with a cognitive or social element, such as reading books or joining clubs. “For someone who is stuck in an occupation with low complexity of working with people, having a good social life might make a difference,” Andel says.
Signing up for social activities may be especially critical for men, since their social lives tend to shrink more significantly than women’s after retirement — a risk factor for cognitive decline, says Deborah Finkel, a professor of psychology at Indiana University Southeast.
Engage with your coworkers
Chained to your desk all day? Make a point to engage in face-to-face interactions with your coworkers. That might mean gathering around the water cooler or even just talking to your boss in person, rather than via email, says Andel. Participating in office politics on occasion may even do your brain a solid: “In the workplace, there are a lot of complexities of social hierarchies and interactions,” says Finkel. “Negotiating all of these hierarchies is apparently very good exercise for your brain.”
Working on crossword puzzles will help you do one thing well: crossword puzzles. “Those skills don’t transfer — they’re very specific. So cognitive training is not the answer. Physical exercise is,” says Finkel. “You need to maintain your heart health and blood flow to the brain. That’s the best way to maintain cognitive function.”
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