These 5 workplace habits might speed up cognitive decline

Thinking of skipping lunch again? You might want to think twice.

These 5 workplace habits might speed up cognitive decline
[Photo: Siora Photography/Unsplash]

Some cognitive decline might be an inevitable part of aging, but lifestyle habits can determine just how fast (or slow) that takes place. As neuroscientist Tara Swart previously wrote in Fast Company, implementing habits like regular exercise, changing your eating patterns to incorporate intermittent fasting and time-restricted eating, as well as prioritizing sleep “can have a tangible effect on how well you age.”


On the flip side, there are also things that can speed up the aging process. Some of these activities might seem harmless, but in the long run, can hurt your brain. When it comes to the workplace, these five habits have the potential of speeding up your cognitive decline:

1. Working late too many days in a row

There will be times in your professional life when working late is a necessity. Maybe one of your team members quit unexpectedly and now you have to pick up the slack until your boss finds someone to replace them. Perhaps every client your team works with just happened to set deadlines that are close to each other.

You can probably recover from the occasional late night (though the older you get, the more it seems to hurt), but when it starts to become a habit, your mind might suffer in the long term. As Lisa Evans previously reported for Fast Company, when you’re working late, you’re likely skimping on sleep. That can lead to deficits in cognitive processing, loss concentration, and increased mental errors. According to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine assistant professor Dr. Emerson Wickwire, chronic sleep loss is equivalent to depriving your brain of nutrients “as vital as food and water.”

2. Relying on a sugary pick-me-up at 3 p.m.

You probably know that reaching for a chocolate bar to fight the afternoon slump leads to a crash after the sugar high wears off. What you might not realize, however, is what consuming refined sugar does to your brain. Sugar elevates dopamine levels (similar to other addictive substances like tobacco, cocaine, or morphine), and the more you consume it, the less dopamine your brain produces, which means that you now need more sugar to get the same “hit.”

What does this have to do with your brain slowing down? According to a study published in the Journal of Physiology, a diet high in sugar can impair your memory. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and one of the authors of the study, said, “Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information.”

3. Being antisocial

Building work friendships and relationships takes time. When your job is demanding, it can be tempting to focus on just getting your work done as soon as possible, and turning down invitations to team lunches. You might also view water-cooler conversations as a waste of time.


But being social at work is good for your cognitive health. A study published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society showed that people who were more socially active experienced 70% less cognitive decline than those who were more socially isolated. Yes, you can also build a social circle outside of work, but given the amount of time you probably spend in the workplace, there are many benefits to having social relationships in the office—whether it be a greater sense of enjoyment at work or having people who can advocate for you to progress in your career.

4. Not taking a break when you need to

Speaking of turning down team lunches, if you have a habit of working through your lunch hour, that’s not great for your brain either. You probably know the importance of breaks to the brain. As Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane wrote for Fast Company, “a brain that isn’t allowed to rest is a brain overwhelmed, filled with waste, uncreative.” Yet we still operate like our brain is a machine that we can turn on and off (which it isn’t).

When you don’t take enough breaks at work, you’re also not giving yourself enough of a mental release, which is likely to lead to mental clutter and low-level chronic stress. And according to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, this kind of constant low-level stress can impair your memory. Taking breaks can prevent this from happening.

5. Multitasking

There’s plenty of research that shows multitasking is the antithesis to productivity. When you try and switch from one task to another, it takes you longer to complete both of those tasks. As psychology professor and Fast Company contributor Art Markman wrote, you’ll just end up doing both of those things poorly.

But the implications of multitasking go beyond short-term productivity. As Vivian Giang reported for Fast Company, multitaskers are working at a “much lower cognitive level” than the mono-taskers, and studies have also shown that they have “less brain density in areas that control empathy and emotions.” Your productivity also decreases over time, as your brain becomes addicted to the instant gratification of completing a small task (like sending an email). You might think you’re being productive, but you’re actually not.

Cal Newport, computer science professor and the author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, puts it this way: “High-quality work produced is a function of two things—the amount of time you spend on the work and the intensity of your focus during this time…. If you can increase your focus, you’ll get more done in less time.” So stop trying to check your email as you write that report. Your memory and brain will probably thank you, too.

About the author

Anisa is a freelance writer and editor who covers the intersection of work and life, personal development, money, and entrepreneurship. Previously, she was the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section and the co-host of Secrets Of The Most Productive people podcast.