Adding to an already robust catalog of research showing that thinking-related challenges are like exercise for the brain, the latest study shows that jobs involving high levels of “executive, verbal and fluid” tasks enhance memory and thinking abilities for years to come.
Researchers measured the memory and thinking abilities of 1,054 participants, all over the age of 75, every one-and-a-half years for eight years using a clinical test called the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE). Results of the test correlate well with a statistically significant increase or decline in memory and thinking ability.
Researchers also interviewed the participants about their work histories and grouped the sorts of tasks they completed into three categories: executive, verbal and fluid.
Executive tasks include “scheduling work and activities, developing strategies and resolving conflicts.” Verbal tasks include “evaluating and interpreting information.” Fluid tasks include those involving “selective attention and analyzing data.”
The results showed that people whose jobs included the highest levels of all three types of tasks had the highest scores on the MMSE exam during the eight-year study period, and they had the slowest rate of cognitive decline (memory and thinking ability). In fact, people with the most mentally challenging jobs had half the rate of decline as those with the least challenging jobs .
Of the three types of tasks, the study found that executive tasks provided the most significant cognitive benefits.
"Our study is important because it suggests that the type of work you do throughout your career may have even more significance on your brain health than your education does," commented study author Francisca S. Then, Ph.D., with the University of Leipzig in Germany.
Previous research has indicated that higher levels of education significantly decrease the rate and severity of dementia later in life. As was found to be the case in those studies, it may be that challenging work tasks—similar to education—effectively train the brain to adapt to cognitive decline, which in turn slows the slide into memory loss and thinking deterioration.
"Challenges at work may indeed be a positive element, if they build up a person's mental reserve in the long-term," Then added.
The study was published in the journal Neurology.