Good news for people whose jobs require managerial skills, conflict resolution and strategy development: A new study finds that performing these mentally challenging tasks during your career may protect against memory and thinking decline in old age.
Researchers from the University of Leipzig in Germany tested 1,054 people over the age of 75 on their thinking abilities and memory every one-and-a-half years for eight years using a test called the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE). MMSE is used to assess the severity and progression of cognitive decline.
Participants also answered questions about their work history. They were asked to categorized the tasks they performed at work into three groups: executive, verbal and fluid. Executive tasks included things like scheduling work and activities, developing strategies and resolving conflicts. Verbal tasks involved evaluating and interpreting information, and fluid tasks included things like analyzing data.
The study found that people whose jobs included the most challenging tasks from all three categories scored better on the MMSE exam during the eight-year study and had the slowest rate of cognitive decline. In fact, their rate of decline was half the rate of participants with a low level of mentally challenging work tasks.
Among the three types of work tasks, high levels of executive and verbal tasks were associated with slower rates of memory and thinking decline. Participants with a high level of verbal tasks declined an average two MMSE points less than those with a low level.
"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," study author Francisca S. Then, PhD, with the University of Leipzig, said in a press release.
Although education is a well-known factor that influences a person's risk of dementia, this new study shows that an individual's job is also important.
"Those occupations that were more intellectually tasking really showed bigger effects on protection than did just education," Dr. Ronald C. Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in Rochester, Minnesota, told CBS News.
The study, published in the journal Neurology, mirrors similar findings by Petersen and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic that said creative hobbies such as pottery, painting and woodworking could help keep a person's brain sharp as they age. The study also confirmed the long-term benefits of social activities such as travel, social clubs and concerts.
"Keeping nerve cells active and stimulated can preserve them for a longer period of time," Petersen said.