Dementia is an increasingly common condition in Western society. It’s estimated that there will be 1 million sufferers in the United Kingdom alone by 2025. Finding ways to better protect ourselves against its onset should, therefore, be of interest to us all. A recent paper suggests that our career could be a crucial aid in producing just such a buffer.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, found that those of us in professions that require intense mental activity are actually lucky. It seems that we have a kind of built in survival advantage should we be diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD).
FTD is a combination of disorders in the brain that have a devastating impact on our wellbeing. It causes a loss of brain cells in both the temporal and frontal parts of the brain, with the result being a loss of language and a range of behavioural impairments. The symptoms gradually get worse before the individual is eventually deprived of their cognitive abilities and independence. It’s believed that 10,000 people are diagnosed with the condition every year.
How Our Career Can Keep us Mentally Healthy
"There is a notion that ones ’cognitive reserve’ is built up over the course of a lifetime through experiences such as education, occupation and mental engagement," the authors say. "We believe that those with higher occupational levels are able to build up an additional level of defense against the disease through rich neural connectivity and this could contribute to longer survival."
The research, which was published in Neurology, saw the autopsy reports of over 80 patients examined. Of the pool of patients, 34 had been diagnosed with FTD, with the remainder having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
The authors recorded the occupation of each patient and ranked them according to standard Census categories. Professions such as a factory worker were at the lower end, moving up through tradesmen or sales people all the way up to professions such as engineers and lawyers at the highest end of the spectrum.
The educational achievements of each patient were also recorded in terms of the number of years each person had spent at school.
Mentally Challenged Workers Live Longer
The data revealed that the median survival for people with FTD was just under seven years, while those with AD survived for a shade under eight years. Interestingly, however, patients who had worked in the most mentally challenging professions seemed to survive much longer, with those with FTD surviving over three years longer than their peers from less mentally challenging professions.
The role our professions play was emphasised by the finding that our educational level did not seem to play a significant role in how long patients survived.
"These results provide support for the protective effects of occupation in FTD," the authors say. "There may be other factors at work here such socioeconomic factors tied to occupational status that contributes to the longevity of this group. Further studies might also want to expand the sample size and occupations characterized, as ours left no room for occupations such as "homemaker" or those outside traditional lines of work."
So, while it can be tempting to grumble about how mentally exhausting our work can be at times. It seems that this level of work is at least keeping our brains that little bit fitter and, therefore, more able to survive some of the illnesses that may come our way later in life.
Do you have a mentally challenging career? Do you think that the added stress is worth the protection you get from FTD? Your thoughts and comments below please...