Jobs that challenge the brain and place greater demands on the worker may provide the best protection against mental decline in old age, new research suggests.
Memory and thinking ability are better preserved by solving problems, developing strategy, conflict resolution and information processing than less demanding work, a study has found.
Lead researcher Francisca Then from the University of Leipzig in Germany said the study suggested the type of work you do during a career might have more significance on brain health than your education does.
“Education is a well-known factor that influences dementia risk,” Dr Then said.
“Challenges at work may indeed be a positive element, if they build up a person’s mental reserve in the long-term.”
Scientists regularly tested 1054 people over the age of 75 for a period of eight years.
The results showed that work tasks which stimulated verbal intelligence were “significantly associated with a better cognitive functioning” as well as a “lower rate of cognitive decline over the eight-year follow-up period compared with a low level”.
The research also found “the rate of cognitive decline in old age was significantly lower in individuals who had a high level of mentally demanding work tasks stimulating executive functions than those who had a low level”.
They also asked participants about their work history and categorised the kind of jobs they did into three groups – executive, verbal or fluid.
Executive tasks involved management, strategy development and resolving conflicts.
Examples of verbal tasks included evaluating and interpreting information, while fluid tasks incorporated selective attention and data analysis.
A test was then used to assess memory and thinking ability.
The study found that people whose working lives included the highest level of all three types of task scored highest in the test.
They also showed the slowest rate of mental decline.
Over eight years, their decline rate was half that of participants with a low level of mentally demanding work tasks.
The research is reported online in the journal Neurology.