Why a Complex Job May Help You in Old Age

Having a mentally challenging job may seem like a bit of a drag at times, but a recent study reveals that it may have significant long-term benefits to our health.

The study, published in the journal Neurology, revealed that employees who had intellectually challenging jobs during their working lives had much better cognitive function when they were older and retired.

Use it or lose it

The study recruited a large group of Scottish pensioners, some of whom had worked in intellectually challenging jobs, and some who had not.  The intellectual jobs had required skills such as problem solving, flexibility (mentally), focus and a significant amount of interaction with peers.

It emerged that this group had both better memories and were generally smarter than their peers from less challenging professions.  This result was consistent, even after the researchers discounted any differences in their intellect or education during their early lives.

The results were quite stark.  The researchers discovered that when employees had to handle complex data during their professional lives, they were significantly faster at managing and processing stimuli.  When ones work involved complex personal interactions, the implications were even starker, with a boost given to general intelligence, IQ and memory into retirement.

The Lothian Cohort

The experiment was largely possible due to a large study of Scottish children who were born in 1936 (called the Lothian Birth Cohort).  This provided the researchers with some great data on how these people performed early in their lives so that childhood intelligence and cognitive performance could be discounted from the experiment.

The 1,000 or so men and women who were measured in that initial experiment were subsequently tracked throughout their lives, and were tested again when they turned 70 years of age, at which point the vast majority had entered into retirement.

A coding system was then used to analyse the jobs they had performed throughout their life to enable researchers to assess them for the complexity of dealing with people, data and things.

Interestingly, it emerged that IQ was fairly stable throughout ones lifetime. What’s more, it was also a generally good predictor of the kind of work we undertake through our lives.

It’s no surprise therefore that smart children who enter intellectual professions ended up being intelligent in their older years. However, the study revealed that if a child with relatively low IQ had managed to enter a complex intellectual profession, this was sufficient to give their brain the strength required to endure into old age.  Likewise, if a smart child enters into a low IQ profession, their brain suffers through the lack of exertion placed upon it.

Gender differences

The final interesting aspect to the study surrounds gender.  I wrote recently about a study exploring highly intelligent men and women, and their path through life.  It revealed that men were far more likely to work than their female peers, so did this latest study reveal any gender differences on account of this?

Interestingly, no.  It emerged that there were no significant differences between the genders, despite it being likely that men worked more than women over the timeframe of the study.  Of course, the earlier paper did reveal that women were overwhelmingly drawn to professions such as nursing and teaching, both of which require complex mental skills, which may explain their later performance.

Either way though, it reinforces the importance of using your brain throughout your life. Your older self will certainly appreciate it.


Image: The Point Man

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