Complex Job May Lead to Better Long-Term Memory, Thinking Skills

If you work at a job that requires complex work with other people (such as a social worker or lawyer) or with data (architect or graphic designer), you may end up having a better long-term memory and thinking skills compared to people who do less complex work, according to new research published in the journal Neurology.

“These results suggest that more stimulating work environments may help people retain their thinking skills, and that this might be observed years after they have retired,” said study author Alan J. Gow, Ph.D., of Heriot-Watt University and the Center for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“Our findings have helped to identify the kinds of job demands that preserve memory and thinking later on.”

For the study, researchers at the University of Edinburgh tested the memory, processing speed, and general thinking abilities of 1,066 Scottish people with an average age of 70. Researchers also gathered information about the participants’ jobs.

The job titles were rated according to the complexity of work with people, data, and things. For example, complex jobs with data might involve coordinating or synthesizing data, or with people, instructing, negotiating, or mentoring.

Examples of jobs that score highly for the complexity of work with people are lawyer, social worker, surgeon, and probation officer. Examples of jobs that score highly for the complexity of work with data are architect, civil engineer, graphic designer, and musician.

Researchers also referred to IQ scores taken from tests when the participants were 11 years old.They found that participants who held jobs with higher levels of complexity with data and people had better scores on memory and thinking tests.

The results remained the same after factoring in IQ at age 11, years of education, and the lack of resources in the participants’ living environment (crime and access to services, for example).

Overall, the effect of occupation was small, accounting for about one percent to two percent of the variance between workers with jobs of high and low complexity. Researchers have long wondered whether a more stimulating environment may build up a person’s “cognitive reserve,” allowing the brain to function in spite of damage, or whether people with higher thinking skills simply go into more complex professions.

“These results actually provide evidence for both theories,” Gow said. “Factoring in people’s IQ at age 11 explained about 50 percent of the variance in thinking abilities in later life, but it did not account for all of the difference.

“That is, while it is true that people who have higher cognitive abilities are more likely to get more complex jobs, there still seems to be a small advantage gained from these complex jobs for later thinking skills.”

Source: American Academy of Neurology

Architect contemplating complex design photo by shutterstock.