If you want to stay sharp in your golden years, it's best to get the hard yards in early - a new study has found that people with mentally demanding jobs fare better in the years after retirement.

Mental acuity and memory retention was found to be higher in retirees who had spent their careers in mentally stimulating roles, such as former physicians, air traffic controllers, and financial analysts. "Working in a job that involves a lot of thinking, analyzing, problem solving, creativity, and other complex mental processing is related to higher levels of cognitive functioning not only before retirement (while we are still working) but after retirement as well," said lead author Gwenith G. Fisher in an email to Reuters Health.

Researchers looked at data gathered as part of the long-running Health and Retirement Study, a joint effort by the National Institute of Aging and the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. The report gathered information from 4,182 adults aged 51 to 61, who had been in the same line of work for at least ten years prior to beginning the study and retired during the study, which ran from 1992 to 2010. To gauge the levels of mental challenges posed by each role, the researchers looked at the Occupational Information Network database, a tool that quantifies characteristics of different jobs that had been developed by the United States Department of Labor.

While those with jobs that ranked in the higher brackets of 'mentally challenging' fared better in the fifteen-odd years after retirement, people who had worked in jobs that were less mentally stimulating followed a less optimistic trajectory, with a more rapid decline in memory after retirement.

However, the researchers and other medical professionals caution that career path isn't the only thing that can determine mental strength in later years.

"Cognitively-stimulating activity improves mental function, (regardless) of occupation," said Dr. Deniz Erten-Lyons, who was not associated with the study. She noted that a range of other activities, such as crochet, could promote mental acuity. "Mental activity and stimulation is good for your brain. It may come through an occupation or it may come from other activities."

The study was published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

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