Having a challenging job may come with an unexpected payoff: Protection against Alzheimer's disease.
In a study published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, researchers found that people whose work is more complex have a significantly lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and dementia compared to people whose jobs required less mental muscle.
"Occupations with high mental demands may provide a form of 'mental exercise' that supports brain function into older adulthood," the study's lead author, Ross Andel of the University of South Florida's School of Aging Studies, said in a statement.
Other research by Andel has demonstrated that mentally-stimulating leisure activities such as reading have a protective effect against Alzheimer's disease, but Andel says given how much time people spend at work, more investigation is required into how on-the-job challenges affect brain health.
To test the theory, Andel and colleagues looked at more than 10,000 members of the Swedish Twin Registry, which followed sets of twins for more than 40 years. Looking at twins is a good way to examine the impact of various environmental or lifestyle factors because it allows researchers to account for genetic influence. The complexity of participants' main life's work was assessed in a telephone questionnaire and rated for complexity in terms of data, dealings with people and dealing with things.
Of the twins enrolled in the study, 225 had been diagnosed with dementia - most caused by Alzheimer's disease. There were 55 cases where one twin had dementia and the other did not.
After adjusting for differences in gender, education and, in some cases, age, the researchers found a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's among people who performed more complex jobs that regularly involve interacting and negotiating with other people. And even stronger association between job complexity and dementia was found when researchers compared twin sets where one twin was diagnosed with dementia and the other was not.
"Our results suggest that intellectually demanding activity at work may facilitate brain health in old age," said Andel. "Those performing complex work with people, such as speaking to, instructing or negotiating with people, appeared particularly protected in this sample."
While further research is required to understand how complex work affects the brain, Andel theorizes it may be a case of "use it or lose it," meaning the more you use your brain, the better it is equipped to withstand cognitive decline through the aging process.
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