Complex Jobs May Aid Cognitive Abilities Later in Life

What do lawyers and social workers have in common? According to a new study published in Neurology, these 2 kinds of workers may perform better on cognitive testing in their later years compared with those working in less stimulating jobs.

What do lawyers and social workers have in common? According to a new study published in Neurology, these 2 kinds of workers may perform better on cognitive testing in their later years compared with those working in less stimulating jobs.

Differentiating among people, data, and things, the Neurology study suggested that individuals with complex jobs related to people or data may see better performance in cognitive functioning around the age of 70 compared with those who had a complex job related to things.

Processing speed, memory, general cognitive ability, and IQ at age 70 were studied among the 1066 subjects.

Most of the participants had taken a mental survey in 1947 when they were 11 years old, so the study authors could compare how their cognitive abilities from childhood transitioned into their older years. The childhood survey studied facility with analogies, word classifications, spatial items, arithmetic, and proverbs.

After the older subjects took tests for processing speed, cognitive ability, memory, and a mental survey similar to the 1947 test, they were also given a score for their occupation’s complexity and a score for deprivation, which considered access to services and geographic data related to crime and education.

According to a press release from the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), some of the highly complex jobs involving people were lawyers, social workers, surgeons, and probation officers, while lower scoring jobs for complexity with people included factory workers and painters. Architects, civil engineers, and musicians were rated high on the list of jobs that were complex and having to do with data. On the other hand, food servers and construction workers rated poorly for complexity with data.

The women involved in the study were most likely to hold a clerical job, teaching position, or profession in nursing. Among these 3 careers, teaching rated the highest for complexity with people.

For men, managerial, supervisory, and company directors were the most common jobs and had the highest ratings for complexity with people, according to the AAN release.

The study authors found men held more complex jobs with data, but there was not a significant difference between men and women who had complex jobs with people or things.

In addition, women had better mental survey scores at age 11, but men had higher scores for processing speed and general cognitive ability at age 70. IQ and memory scores did not significantly differ between men and women at age 70, according to the study.

Subjects with complex jobs having to do with data or people had better cognitive performance in their later years compared with people who had complex jobs related to things, with the exception of processing speed, according to the study.

Individuals with complex jobs related to people were associated with better general cognitive abilities and memory scores. People with complex jobs involving data translated into better processing speed scores and general cognitive ability, the study found.

“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 a press release. “Our findings have helped to identify the kinds of job demands that preserve memory and thinking later on.”

According to the AAN press release, the effects of occupation accounted for about 1% to 2% of the variance between people with jobs of high or low complexity.

The study supported both the theory that people with higher thinking skills are more likely to have a more complex job, as well as the theory that a stimulating environment may create a “cognitive reserve” for a brain to bank on when aging affects the mind.