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How mentally challenging work can help your mind stay sharp

Harold Mandel's picture
An active brain

Doing work which is mentally challenging can help your mind stay sharp throughout your life. Kids often complain about having to learn a lot of things in school which appears to be irrelevant to them for their personal lives and future career interests. Instead of simply passing this off by saying this is just something we all had to go through, it may be more beneficial to explain that mental exercises are good for your mind.

Age associated alterations in cognitive abilities are well-documented, and serve as a very important indicator of health, functioning, and decline as people age, reports the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. Nevertheless, there has not been a great deal known about the course of cognitive functioning prior to and after retirement.

Specifically it has been unclear how job characteristics during one’s time of employment dealing with higher versus lower levels of mental work demands moderate the manners in which cognition changes both before and after the transition to retirement. Research has demonstrated that working in an occupation which is characterized by higher levels of mental demands was associated with increased levels of cognitive functioning prior to retirement, and a decreased rate of cognitive decline after retirement.

The researchers have determined that mentally challenging jobs may keep your mind sharp long after retirement, reports the University of Michigan. According to this study although a job which is mentally demanding may stress you out today, it can nevertheless provide important benefits for you after you retire. Gwenith Fisher, who is an assistant professor of psychology at Colorado State University, has said, "Based on data spanning 18 years, our study suggests that certain kinds of challenging jobs have the potential to enhance and protect workers' mental functioning in later life."

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The researchers observed that people who had worked in jobs with increased mental demands were more likely to have better memories prior to retirement and they were more likely to have slower declines in memory after retirement than people who had worked in jobs which had fewer mental demands.

Jessica Faul, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, has said, "These results suggest that working in an occupation that requires a variety of mental processes may be beneficial to employees." Faul has gone on to explain that being exposed to new experiences or more mentally complex job duties may be beneficial for newer workers and more seasoned employees. Life-long learning activities both at work and outside of work can be really important.

Mentally challenging activities decrease your risk for dementia, reports Brainphysics.com. A study lead by Robert S. Wilson, PhD, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago shows that people who participate in activities which exercise their brain tend to perform a lot better on tests which measure memory and thinking than those who don't. Wilson has said, “exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person’s lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age.”

In this study it was found that people engaging in frequent mental stimulation during advanced age had a 32 percent lower rate of mental decline than for people with average mental activity. The rate of mental decline was found to be 48 percent faster among people who were mentally active less frequently. This study concluded, “More frequent cognitive activity across the life span has an association with slower late-life cognitive decline that is independent of common neuropathologic conditions, consistent with the cognitive reserve hypothesis.”

Clearly, it is a good idea to challenge your mind throughout your life. People who are motivated to do this often seek out jobs which are challenging for their minds. If it becomes difficult to find such a job due to economic conditions and other factors unrelated to your intellectual capacity it is a wise idea to nevertheless seek out other situations which challenge your mind on a frequent basis. Photography, musical and art pursuits, and freelance writing are some suggestions to help challenge your mind on a frequent basis.