Brain and Behavior

Mentally Stimulating Jobs May Reduce Risk of Cognitive Decline

Is your job helping your brain or hurting it? While it may be obvious that some jobs—such as those requiring intensive manual labor or engagement in continuously stressful environments—can wreak havoc on the body, they can also hurt your brain. In fact, according to a new study published in the journal Neurology, some jobs are associated with higher rates of cognitive decline later in life due to their lack of mental engagement.

The Research

A team of researchers collaborated to study the trajectories of occupational cognitive demands and the risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia later in life. The research was part of the larger “Changing lives, changing brains” project from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Columbia University New York, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Reviewing the work and later-life cognitive health of just over 7,000 people in Norway, the scientists scored the 305 unique types of jobs using a Routine Task Intensity (RTI) scale. At one end of the scale are occupations with repetitive, “routine” tasks that typically require less mental involvement, such as filing, factory work and bookkeeping.  On the other end of the spectrum are “non-routine” occupations, which often require more cognitive involvement due to work-related challenges involving a need for creative thinking, analysis, or strategic interpretation of information. Many of these non-routine occupational tasks also require interpersonal relationship skills in order coach or engage with others, such as public relations or teaching.

To further classify the occupations by their RTI grades, the researchers divided the 305 jobs into four groups:

• High RTI: The most frequent occupations in this group were helpers and cleaners in offices and other establishments.

• Intermediate RTI: Most occupations in this group were store salespersons and other retail sales personnel.

• Medium-low RTI: The people assigned to this group were primarily nurses and childcare workers.

• Low RTI: This group included mostly primary- and secondary-education teachers.

In addition, the researchers factored for things like income and health-related factors, although even with these considerations, their findings remained essentially the same.

The Results

The results showed that of people in the low RTI group, only 27% were diagnosed with cognitive impairment at age 70. The low RTI group, however, saw 42% diagnosed with cognitive impairment at age 70.

To be clear, this observational study isn’t necessarily causational. The research isn’t confirming that high RTI jobs cause cognitive issues later in life. It simply shows an association, which aligns with evidence from previous European cohort studies.

So, what could explain these results? According to the study’s first author, Trine Holt Edwin, MD, PhD, they build on the cognitive reserve hypothesis. The idea is that maintaining cognitive reserve comes down to “use it or lose it.”

[The study’s results] “support this hypothesis by showing that cognitive abilities acquired through both education and occupation during early and midlife appear to offer resilience against the brain change associated with age-related cognitive decline,” says Holt Edwin.

“New neurons are stimulated to survive by engaging in neurophysiological activity related to new and challenging learning experiences,” explains University of West London Associate Professor of Ageing and Dementia Snorri Bjorn Rafnsson, PhD, who was not involved in the study. “Cognitive stimulating work could thus boost neuronal activity and help maintain a fit brain.”

It’s worth noting that cognitive development throughout adulthood can be adversely affected by limited social interaction, sedentary lifestyles, and social isolation, all of which can lead to poor cognitive outcomes.

How to increase mental stimulation

Even if your job falls into the intermediate or high RTI, there are other mentally stimulating activities that can benefit your brain. Maintaining social relationships, engaging in hobbies, participating in sports, singing in a choir, or taking classes can all provide cognitively challenging tasks to “boost” your cognitive reserve.

There are also brain-boosting games that help work on specific cognitive skills and for a more intensive experience, adults can enroll in personal brain training. Using mentally challenging, game-like activities, personal brain training (also known as cognitive skills training) is designed to target and train the foundational skills we need to learn, think, read, and remember.

The study was published in the April 17, 2024, edition of the journal Neurology.


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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