Whether you sit at a desk crunching numbers, stock grocery store shelves, operate a forklift machine, fly over fields as a dust cropper pilot or write sitcoms for television, the majority of us spend our lives working. For some it’s a daily grind; for others, work is their daily passion. For most, work is inescapable. It’s what we do. Yet, jobs that involve complex thinking and that present opportunities for people to socially engage with others offer older adults a measure of protection against the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. And this is HUGE news.
For years, researchers thought a mentally engaging lifestyle protects against diminished brain function in old age but more evidence was needed to prove this idea. Two distinct studies reported on at this summer’s 2016 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) demonstrate that positive lifestyle choices do offset the effects of an unhealthy diet and the pathology of cerebrovascular disease.
The first study showed a typical Western diet (red meat, white bread, pre-packaged foods and foods with high sugar content) is associated with cognitive decline. Yet, people who followed this diet could counteract these effects if their jobs were mentally challenging and socially engaging and if they achieved a higher educational level. The greatest protections were offered to social workers, lawyers, doctors and engineers who faired better than manual laborers, machine operators, cashiers and grocery workers.
A second study, conducted by the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute and the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, examined the brain scans of 284 people. The subjects, average age 60, were cognitively healthy but their brain scans showed white matter hyper intensities, the white spots that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. Though considered at risk for contracting the disease, these individuals better tolerated the white matter damage if they worked primarily with other people rather than with data or other physical things.
This study, along with several others reported on at the AAIC, seems to prove the idea of cognitive reserve, defined as the brain’s resilience to maintain its ability and function despite injury or disease pathology. According to Elizabeth Boots, one of the researchers and presenters of the Wisconsin study, “These findings suggest that a mentally engaging lifestyle can lessen the harmful effects that abnormal brain changes have on cognitive health.”
So, what is the takeaway from all this information? Clearly, it is that pharmacological advances in treating or ultimately preventing Alzheimer’s disease should be pursued along with lifestyle changes. The big message is that YOU do have some control over cognitive outcomes in later life, so don’t take a passive approach to your cognitive future. Maintain those intellectual activities through your job or through other mentally stimulating and socially engaging pursuits because, in the end, the job you choose, the lifestyle you adapt, just might determine the cognitive shape of your brain in your older years.