Study results suggest that more stimulating work environments may help people retain their cognitive abilities.
Persons whose jobs require more complex work with other persons or with data may end up having longer-lasting memory and thinking abilities than those who do less complex work, according to a recent study.
Researchers in Scotland tested the memory and thinking abilities of 1066 persons (average age, 70 years) for memory, processing speed, and general thinking ability. They also gathered information about the jobs that the participants held.
Job titles were assigned scores for the complexity of work with people, data, and things. Complex jobs might involve coordinating or synthesizing data, and less complex jobs might involve copying or comparing data. More complex roles in working with people might involve instructing, negotiating, or mentoring; less complex jobs might involve taking instructions or helping.
The analysis used levels of complexity according to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, such as the following:
• Jobs that score highly for the complexity of work with people include lawyer, social worker, surgeon, and probation officer.
• Jobs that have lower scores for complexity of work with people include factory worker, bookbinder, painter, and carpet layer.
• Jobs that score highly for complexity of work with data include architect, civil engineer, graphic designer, and musician.
• Jobs that have lower scores for complexity of work with data include construction worker, telephone operator, and food server.
Participants 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, 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% or 2% of the variance between persons with jobs of high and low complexity, an effect that is comparable to that of other factors, such as the association between not smoking and better thinking skills in later life.
“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 study author Alan J. Gow, PhD, of Heriot-Watt University and the Center for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology in Edinburgh. “Our findings have helped to identify the kinds of job demands that preserve memory and thinking later on.”
The study was supported by Age UK, as part of a wider research program called the Disconnected Mind, with additional support from the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
The study was published in the November 19, 2014, online issue of Neurology.