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Your Tough Job Might Help Keep You Sharp

Engaging, mentally stimulating work is good for the brain, scientists say, whether you get paid to do it or not. Running a household can be as mentally demanding as running a company.
Engaging, mentally stimulating work is good for the brain, scientists say, whether you get paid to do it or not. Running a household can be as mentally demanding as running a company.

It's just Wednesday, but maybe you're already crashing. You've got three deadlines to juggle, your boss is breathing down your neck and Lillith from Finance is being a total pain.

Here's a bit of research that might reassure you it's all worth it.

Challenging work that involves lots of analytical thinking, planning and other managerial skills might help your brain stay sharp as you age, a study publishedWednesday in the journal Neurology suggests.

Researchers from the University of Leipzig in Germany gathered more than 1,000 retired workers who were over age 75 and assessed the volunteers' memory and thinking skills through a battery of tests. Then, for eight years, the scientists asked the same group to come back to the lab every 18 months to take the same sorts of tests.

Those who had held mentally stimulating, demanding jobs before retirement tended to do the best on the tests, the study found. And they tended to lose cognitive function at a much slower rate over the course of the study than those with the least intellectually challenging jobs. (The research team estimated how mentally engaging each job was by checking job descriptions in a huge online database developed by the U.S. Department of Labor.)

The results held true even after the scientists accounted for the participants' overall health and socioeconomic status.

"This works just like physical exercise," says Francisca Then, the cognitive psychologist and epidemiologist who led the study. "After a long run, you may feel like you're in pain, you may feel exhausted. But it makes you fit. After a long day at work — sure, you will feel exhausted, but it can help your brain stay healthy."

It's not just corporate jobs, or even paid work that can help keep your brain fit, Then points out. A barista job, for example, that involves multitasking, teamwork and decision-making could be just as stimulating as any high-level office work. And "running a family household requires high-level planning and coordinating," she says. "You have to organize the activities of the children and take care of the bills and groceries."

Of course, our brains can decline as we grow older for lots of reasons — including other environmental influences or genetic factors. Intellectuals develop dementia, too. Still, continuing to challenge yourself mentally and keeping your mind engaged can only help.

"There's a wealth of evidence dating back several decades showing that people who are better-educated and who have enriching jobs tend to stay sharp for longer," says Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, a psychiatrist at Duke University's Institute for Brain Sciences, who wasn't involved in the recent study. And research shows that people with less engaging careers, or whose jobs involve primarily physical work, tend to have higher rates of dementia in old age.

"We're still figuring out why that is," Doraiswamy says. People with higher-paying jobs very likely have better access to medical treatment, he points out, which may partly explain why they have lower rates of dementia.

But a growing body of research does suggest that intellectual stimulation may directly help maintain a healthy brain. One theory holds that by challenging yourself mentally and learning new information, you're building up your cognitive reserve. The more you have in your reserve, the more thinking power you have to fall back on, if the brain starts to fade.

"Research even shows that people who worked for longer had lower rates of dementia," Doraiswamy says. "My advice is, if you have a fulfilling job, avoid early retirement."

And if you're totally bored at work, he says, there are other ways to keep your mind fit. "Read a book, learn to play chess, try something new." Lying on your couch and watching sports may be relaxing, and that's important for a healthy life, too. Just don't count on it to grow your brain.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.