Can your job condition your brain to stay active into old age? A new study from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor suggests that it might.
The study took place over a long period of time, from 1992 to 2010, and involved 4,182 subjects. Those subjects worked in all kinds of jobs, from all kinds of backgrounds, but had been doing the same job for more than 25 years, on average, before retiring. The researchers classified the subjects’ jobs as either mentally stimulating or not, based on whether the job fulfilled a few categories. “These requirements included analyzing data, developing objectives and strategies, making decisions, solving problems, evaluating information, and thinking creatively,” the university’s press release says.
After retirement, the researchers tested both classifications–whether the subject had a mentally stimulating job or not–by giving the subjects standard memory and mental alertness tests. You’re familiar with those; they might be whether a subject can recall 10 words immediately after they’re given, or counting backwards from 100 by sevens.
The study found that those who had worked mentally stimulating jobs had a much less severe decline in mental faculties over time. The difference may not have been large immediately after retirement, but as subjects aged, the difference became more pronounced.
This is a tricky sort of study to draw conclusions from; there’s no neurological evidence provided alongside, so we have to account for any other factors. The researchers did control for education level and income level, hoping to neutralize the likelihood that mentally stimulating jobs were taken by those inclined to have a slower mental decline anyway. It’s not perfect, but it certainly does present a correlation: there’s likely some kind of connection between what your brain does while working and how it works when it’s retired.