People whose jobs require complex work with other people, such as social workers and lawyers, or with data, such architects or graphic designers, may end up having longer-lasting memory and thinking abilities.
Research, published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, has helped to identify the kinds of job demands which preserve memory and thinking later on
“These results suggest that more stimulating work environments may help people retain their thinking skills, and that this might be observed years after they have retired,” said Alan J. Gow of Heriot-Watt University and the Center for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology in Edinburgh.
For the study 1,066 Scottish people with an average age of 70 had their memory and thinking abilities tested.
The tests looked at memory, processing speed and general thinking ability. Researchers also gathered information about the jobs participants held.
Examples of jobs which score highly for the complexity of work with people are: lawyer, social worker, surgeon, probation officer. Jobs which have lower scores for complexity of work with people are: factory worker, bookbinder, painter, carpet layer.
And jobs scoring highly for the complexity with data are: architect, civil engineer, graphic designer or musician. Lower scores for complexity of work with data include: construction worker, telephone operator or food server.
Researchers also had IQ scores from tests taken when the participants were 11 years old.
The study found that those who held jobs with higher levels of complexity with data and people, such as management and teaching, had better scores on memory and thinking tests.
The results remained the same after considering IQ at age 11, years of education and the lack of resources in the environment the person lived in.
Overall, the effect of occupation was small, accounting for about 1% to 2% of the variance between people with jobs of high and low complexity.
This is comparable to other factors such as the association between not smoking and better thinking skills in later life.
Researchers have debated whether a more stimulating environment may build up a person’s “cognitive reserve,” acting as a buffer allowing the brain to function in spite of damage, or whether people with higher thinking skills are those who are able to go into more challenging occupations.
“These results actually provide evidence for both theories,” Gow said.
“Factoring in people’s IQ at age 11 explained about 50% of the variance in thinking abilities in later life, but it did not account for all of the difference. That is, while it is true that people who have higher cognitive abilities are more likely to get more complex jobs, there still seems to be a small advantage gained from these complex jobs for later thinking skills.”
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