Effects of jobs and attitudes on memory and aging

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Preventing memory loss on a daily basis

When it comes to your brain, use it or lose it. The harder your brain works at your job, the less likely you may be to have memory and thinking problems later in life, according to a new study published in the journal Neurology. The study does not prove that stimulating work prevents mild cognitive impairment (MCI). It only shows an association.

“We examined the demands of various jobs and found that cognitive stimulation at work during different stages in life, during your 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, was linked to a reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment after the age of 70,” said study author Dr. Trine Holt Edwin with Oslo University Hospital in Norway. “Our findings highlight the value of having a job that requires more complex thinking as a way to possibly maintain memory and thinking in old age.”

The study looked at 7,000 people and 305 occupations in Norway. Researchers measured the degree of cognitive stimulation that participants experienced while on the job. They measured the degree of routine manual, routine cognitive, non-routine analytical, and non-routine interpersonal tasks, which are skill sets that different jobs demand.

Routine manual tasks demand speed, control over equipment, and often involve repetitive motions, typical of factory work. Routine cognitive tasks demand precision and accuracy of repetitive tasks, such as in bookkeeping and filing.

Non-routine analytical tasks refer to activities that involve analyzing information, engaging in creative thinking and interpreting information for others. Non-routine interpersonal tasks refer to establishing and maintaining personal relationships, motivating others and coaching. Non-routine cognitive jobs include public relations and computer programming.

Researchers divided participants into four groups based on the degree of cognitive stimulation that they experienced in their jobs. The most common job for the group with the highest cognitive demands was teaching. The most common jobs for the group with the lowest cognitive demands were mail carriers and custodians.

After age 70, participants completed memory and thinking tests to assess whether they had MCI. Of those with the lowest cognitive demands, 42% were diagnosed with MCI. Of those with the highest cognitive demands, 27% were diagnosed with it. After adjustment for age, sex, education, income and lifestyle factors, the group with the lowest cognitive demands at work had a 66% higher risk of MCI compared to the group with the highest cognitive demands at work.

Old age is not what it used to be

Middle-aged and older adults believe that old age begins later in life than their peers did decades ago, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association.

“Life expectancy has increased, which might contribute to a later perceived onset of old age. Also, some aspects of health have improved over time, so that people of a certain age who

were regarded as old in the past may no longer be considered old nowadays,” said study author Markus Wettstein with Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.

Wettstein, along with colleagues at Stanford University, the University of Luxembourg and the University of Greifswald, Germany, examined data from 14,056 participants in the German Ageing Survey, a longitudinal study that includes people living in Germany born between 1911 and 1974. Participants responded to survey questions up to eight times over 25 years (1996-2021) when they were between 40 and 100 years old. Additional participants (40 to 85 years old) were recruited throughout the study period as later generations entered midlife and old age. Among the many questions survey participants answered was, “At what age would you describe someone as old?”

The researchers found that compared with the earliest-born participants, later-born participants reported a later perceived onset of old age. For example, when participants born in 1911 were 65 years old, they set the beginning of old age at age 71. In contrast, participants born in 1956 said old age begins at age 74, on average, when they were 65.

However, the researchers also found that the trend toward a later perceived onset of old age has slowed in recent years. “The trend toward postponing old age is not linear and might not necessarily continue in the future,” said Wettstein.

The researchers looked at how individual participants’ perceptions of old age changed as they got older. They found that as individuals aged, their perception of the onset of old age was pushed further out. At age 64, the average participant said old age started at 74.7. At age 74, they said old age started at 76.8. On average, the perceived onset of old age increased by about one year for every four to five years of actual aging.

Finally, the researchers examined how individual characteristics such as gender and health status contributed to differences in perceived onset of old age. They found that women, on average, said that old age started two years later than men, and that the difference between men and women had increased over time. They also found that people who reported being more lonely, in worse health, and feeling older said old age began earlier, on average, than those who were less lonely, in better health, and felt younger.

The results may have implications for when and how people prepare for their own aging, as well as how people think about older adults in general.

“It is unclear to what extent the trend towards postponing old age reflects a trend towards more positive views on older people and aging, or rather the opposite. Perhaps, the onset of old age is postponed because people consider being old to be an undesirable state,” Wettstein said.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at medicalminutes@gmail.com.

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John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute.

  • Email: medicalminutes@gmail.com