A career in a profession that offers constant mental challenges may be the best means for avoiding dementia or other mental decline in old age.
Researchers say jobs with challenging tasks such as public speaking, developing strategies, working in conflict resolution or management may offer more protection from cognitive and memory decline in advancing age.
In a recent study, 1,054 people age 75 and above took tests that measured memory and cognitive performance every one and a half years for eight years. Participants were also surveyed about their previous work and career history, with the researchers categorizing the tasks they reported into three categories: executive, verbal and fluid. Fluid tasks were defined as those including selective attention and analysis of data.
The participants were given the Mini-Mental State Examination, in which even a small decline in performance can indicate a clinically relevant mental deficit.
The participants with careers demanding higher levels of all three types of tasks scored higher on the mental tests than people with jobs requiring lower levels of the tasks, the researchers reported in the journal Neurology. In addition, people whose jobs presented the highest level of all three types of tasks had the most minimal rate of decline in their cognitive and memory function.
"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," said study author Francisca S. Then, from the University of Leipzig in Germany. "Education is a well-known factor that influences dementia risk."
Scientists have long considered mental exercise one of the best ways of keeping Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia at bay.
In a previous study, people in complex professions – such as doctors, architects, teachers and lawyers – were found to face less risk of developing dementia after retirement.
"Challenges at work may indeed be a positive element, if they build up a person's mental reserve in the long-term," Then said.
Other experts have come to similar conclusions.
"Working experience in a nonchallenging work environment may not generally provide for the ... creativity, innovation, communication, or problem-solving skills," said Larry White from the University of Buffalo department of library and information studies.
By contrast, a challenging work environment can increase the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) of both employees and managers, he explained.
"Exercising your KSAs for working in a challenging environment is comparable to preparing to run a race: one prepares for a race by training harder or running longer distances or faster times, not by resting or reducing one's training levels," White added.