Worried that your mentally taxing job is taking years off your life? Relax. Not only is that daily mental workout not sending you to an early grave, it may help preserve your mental function long after retirement.
People with jobs that require problem-solving, planning, information analysis and multitasking are more likely to retain clear memories and reasoning skills as they grow older, according to a new study from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.
Lawyers, financial analysts, teachers, doctors—even journalists—stand to benefit, as do program managers who must juggle competing assignments and supervise employees. At the opposite end of the spectrum are jobs that offer little or no opportunity for creative thinking such as working on an assembly line.
Researchers examined data from nearly 4,200 study participants interviewed eight times between 1992 and 2010 when they were between 51 and 61 years old. The researchers then analyzed the respondents’ mental function using standard tests of episodic memory and mental function, screening for economic status, educational background, depression and other demographic data.
The findings showed that the more mentally demanding a person’s job before retirement, the more likely he or she was to maintain a high level of mental acuity, especially fewer and slower levels of cognitive decline, afterward. Moreover, the differences between those who retired from more demanding jobs and those who had more routine occupations increased as time went on.
The study adds weight to a growing body of evidence suggesting that if people want to keep their brains healthy after retirement, they need to start flexing their mental muscle earlier in life.
“There is some evidence that exercising mind and body earlier in life can protect your intellectual abilities later in life,” says Dr. Lanny Edelsohn, a neurologist with Christiana Care Health System.
There are a couple of theories on why brain-twisting gigs might help preserve mental acuity, he says. Working the brain harder creates more neurons so that when age begins to take its toll, there will be a reserve to draw on and any loss of neurons will have a limited effect on mental capacity.
There’s also the “use it or lose it” principle which says that much like our bodies, our brains will atrophy from disuse.
Does this mean that individuals working in less-challenging positions are doomed? Not necessarily, Edelsohn says. What you do outside work can also plump up your brain.
“I encourage people to do challenging things, not simple things,” he says. “Learn a language. Take up an instrument. Learn a new card game. You may fail but as you challenge your brain, synapses grow. We know that.”