MENTAL HEALTH

Why the job you choose may affect your memory later in life

Man sitting at a desk and looking into his computer

Man sitting at a desk and looking into his computer

Surgeons have to be sharp and think on their feet, and the wheels in minds of musicians are constantly turning. With that in mind, researchers set out to determine if highly “complex” jobs would preserve a person’s cognitive skills with age.

According to the study published in Neurology, the scientists tested more than 1,000 people over a long stretch of time. They took standard IQ tests at 11 years old, and then were reassessed for their thinking abilities at age 70. The researchers’ test involved word analogies, math problems, spatial puzzles, and word decoding, meant to evaluate each person’s memory skills, to thinking speed, and overall cognitive abilities.

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Researchers then evaluated the jobs of each individual to determine the level of complexity and how mentally stimulating they were; jobs that were more complex included surgeon, architect, lawyer and musician, whereas jobs deemed less complex included carpet-layer, painter and call operator.

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Complex jobs did have a larger effect on cognitive skills of the older individuals than the jobs that weren’t as stimulating -- somewhere in the neighborhood of one to two percent. While this might not sound like a whole lot, it is. It’s roughly the protective equivalent of not smoking (which has been shown to hurt cognitive abilities as we age).

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Researchers also controlled for the natural thinking ability of the high-level participants. “Factoring in people’s IQ at age 11 explained about 50 percent of the variance in thinking abilities in later life, but it did not account for all of the difference,” study author Alan J. Gow explains. “That is, while it is true that people who have higher cognitive abilities are more likely to get more complex jobs, there still seems to be a small advantage gained from these complex jobs for later thinking skills.”

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So if your job feels like it’s exhausting your brain power some days, you can thank your lucky stars. It might make for a healthy mind later on.