Work might help keep your brain sharp well into old age—depending on your profession.

A new study in the journal Neurology finds that intellectually complex jobs, such as social worker, graphic designer or architect, are associated with better thinking skills later in life.

The research, from Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, tested 1,066 individuals, all born in 1936 and mostly retired, on memory, processing speed and general cognitive ability. Researchers gave the participants, all around 70 years old at the time, a variety of tests. To assess memory, for example, individuals were asked to repeat information after a delay, according to Alan Gow, one of the study’s authors. To gauge general cognitive ability, they completed patterns.

Individuals whose jobs involved analyzing or synthesizing data, such as architects and civil engineers, tended to have better cognitive performance. The same went for those who did complicated work involving people — instructing, negotiating with or mentoring others. Lawyers, social workers, surgeons and probation officers are all considered complex roles.

In less complex jobs, individuals spend more of their time following instructions from others or copying data instead of manipulating it.

The findings are in line with the “use it or lose it” theory, according to Gow, an assistant professor of psychology at Heriot-Watt University who began the research at the University of Edinburgh. The more you tackle tough problems, the less likely it is that cognitive muscle will decline over time.

It’s not clear what mechanisms might be behind the impact of complex work.

“More mentally stimulating jobs might have allowed people to accrue either some structural or functional changes in the brain,” such as better and faster neural connections, Gow said. Or, these individuals might simply have developed a larger arsenal of skills and abilities they can always return to.

The researchers were able to factor in the individuals’ IQ at age 11, a variable that explained about 50% of the difference in the sample’s thinking abilities later in life. So participants with higher IQs tended to have more complex jobs, but they also seemed to gain an extra boost in thinking skills from those roles.

That increase was small, the researchers note; occupational complexity explained about 1% to 2% of the difference in cognitive functioning identified in the group. But it was statistically significant – and rang true to Andy Herrmann, a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“We’ve been trained to solve problems and think analytically,” he said. “We keep our minds very active.”

In future research, Gow hopes to explore the relationship between jobs and cognitive functioning in 73- and 76-year olds to see if and how the effect changes over time. He also sees room to dig deeper into the world of work to see if factors like the support of coworkers or managers, the demands of a job or how much control employees have over their work might influence cognitive functioning.

“There are a lot of other aspects of people’s occupations that are interesting and important,” Gow said.

By: Rachel Feintzeig

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