Good news was delivered today as the recent Health and Retirement Study, from the National Institute of Aging and the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, concluded that individuals with mentally demanding jobs have a better chance of maintaining higher cognitive function and offsetting dementia after they retire. Between 2010 and 2050 the number of people over the age of 65 will more than double, and for people who begin to prepare for life after retirement, many worry about the mental changes in store for them that will result from the aging process.
As concerns revolving around mental health rise with the aging population in the United States, many people are interested in preventative measures that will reduce the chances of impaired cognitive functions which may ultimately result in dementia. Lead author of the Health and Retirement Study, Gwen G. Fisher, explained that mentally demanding jobs promote cognitive health. Individuals who work in a job where they are required to analyze their work, problem solve, think critically and creatively, as well as engage in other more complex cognitive processes are more likely to have higher levels of cognitive function which result in optimal brain health. Jobs which require individuals to maintain mental acuity will help keep them sharp not only throughout their working years, but on into retirement.
The Health and Retirement Study analyzed data from approximately 4,200 participants who were between the ages of 51 and 61 when they entered the study. Beginning in 1992 and concluding in 2010, these individuals were interviewed every two years with questions regarding the mental demands of their jobs, the type of decisions and problem solving their jobs required, objectives and strategies used as part of their work, the type of data which needed to be assessed, and evaluated the critical and creative thinking skills associated with their employment. The study covered a large variety of jobs by which the average person had been employed for more than 25 years before retirement.
While the differences in cognitive function were not dramatic immediately after retirement, the study found that as time went on the gap in mental health, between those who had mentally demanding jobs and those who did not, grew larger and doubled 15 years after retirement. When tested, those in the study who were engaged in work that had higher mental demands and challenged their mental faculties on a regular basis, scored better on a measure of cognitive thinking skills by more than 50 percent, Fisher explained.
The authors of the study, whose work was published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, concluded that choosing an occupation that requires a variety of mental processes or re-designing jobs that are less cognitively complex could offer multiple benefits to employees down the road; the more mentally demanding a job is the more likely one will offset the development of dementia after retirement.
Other studies similar to the Health and Retirement Study have shared similar correlations between the risk of dementia and the mentally demanding jobs. Occupations that require the individual to make independent decisions and employ critical and creative thinking tend to result in higher levels of cognitive health; while jobs that are less mentally demanding typically result in the reduction of an individuals thinking and memory capacities at a much earlier age.
Researchers of the study believe that consistent mental stimulation gained from working a job that is more challenging preserves the neurons of the brain. Fisher articulates that, “much like muscles on our body, if you use the brain you strengthen it, and if you do not, it can atrophy.” By working the brain regularly, a person can create more neurons during their years of employment which will serve them once they retire and may slow the process by which their cognitive functions deteriorate.
Keith Fargo, who works for the Alzheimer’s Association said that the findings of the study emphasize the importance of mental health, and that by midlife people need to start paying more attention to their own brain health and how to maintain it. While their are many contributing factors to the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s, the study shows how critical it is for individuals to use their brain, and continue to challenge it throughout their lives.
Not everyone has to become a doctor or financial analyst to avoid mental decline in old age. Mentally demanding jobs are just one way to ensure that the brain in continually exercising, which could offset dementia after retirement; but there are other ways to help ward off mental decline. Proper nutrition, reading, playing mentally stimulating or challenging games, socializing, and even participating in regular physical activity that engage the mind and the body together are all vital to brain function and health. While not everyone is afforded the convenience or opportunity to find the perfect job that is mentally stimulating, the key to maintaining brain health and cognitive function if one is not being challenged by their work on a daily basis, is that they find a way to challenge and stimulate their minds outside of work by finding creative ways to keep the brain healthy and active.
By Natalia Sanchez