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Cognitive Reserve and Intellectually Demanding Jobs

I hope you are having happy holidays, and are getting ready for New Year celebrations. Best wishes to you and your loved ones.

Via MedJournalWatch we just found this interesting paper,

Associations of job demands and intelligence with cognitive performance among men in late life. Guy G. Potter PhD*, Michael J. Helms BS, and Brenda L. Plassman PhD Neurology 2007.

– CONCLUSIONS: “Intellectually demanding work was associated with greater benefit to cognitive performance in later life independent of related factors like education and intelligence. The fact that individuals with lower intellectual aptitude demonstrated a stronger positive association between work and higher cognitive performance during retirement suggests that behavior may enhance intellectual reserve, perhaps even years after peak intellectual activity.”

This is consistent with the Cognitive Reserve theory we discussed in the interview with neuroscientist Yaakov Stern:

– AF (Alvaro Fernandez): OK, so our goal is to build that Reserve of neurons, synapses, and skills. How can we do that? What defines “mentally stimulating activities” or good “brain exercise”?

– YS (Yaakov Stern): In summary, we could say that “stimulation” consists of engaging in activities. In our research almost all activities are seen to contribute to reserve. Some have challenging levels of cognitive complexity, and some have interpersonal or physical demands. In animal studies, exposure to an enriched environment or increased physical activity result in increased neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons). You can get that stimulation through education and/ or your occupation. There is clear research showing how those two elements reduce the risk. Now, what is very exciting is that, no matter one’s age, education and occupation, our level of participation in leisure activities has a significant and cumulative effect. A key message here is that different activities have independent, synergistic, contributions, which means the more things you do and the earlier you start, the better. But you are never stuck: better late than never.

– Read more on the Cognitive Reserve

In short, mentally and socially stimulating activities, through our education, occupation AND leisure activities, contribute to building a Cognitive Reserve in our brains that may help delay memory problems, Mild Cognitive Impairment, and Alzheimer’s related symptoms, and help maintain cognitive performance overall as we age.

If you are thinking about New Year Resolutions, this is one more area to consider. Happy 2008!

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8 Responses

  1. elona says:

    Thank you for the optimistic outlook.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Hello Elona, well, more than optimistic I’d say I am realistic: we can not change our own genes, but there is much we can do about our lifestyle!

    Happy New Year

  3. School Psych says:

    Great blog. Personally, I agree wholeheartedly with this theory. Lifestyles and intensity of cognitive rigor do have a reciprocal relationship. A bit of a cliche, maybe, yet I believe the human brain rises to the challenges we offer it…

  4. Alvaro says:

    Thanks for stopping by. And yes, up to a very large extent, “the human brain rises to the challenges we offer it”.

  5. Blaise says:

    What do you mean by intellectually demanding jobs. Can you give some specific examples and counter examples?

  6. Mentally stimulating: any job that involves frequent novelty, complex organization, decision-making, multi-tasking, planning… you can think of careers like law, medicine and journalism. According to our co-founder and neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg, launching SharpBrains does quality as “very stimulating” for those involved.

    Not mentally stimulating: anything that overtime becomes repetitive, monotonous, and requires little attention and decision-making to perform. In order not to offend anyone (and to benefit your brain), I leave it to you to think of examples.

    Please also note a nuance that this kind of research can not get into: one factor is the job/ career itself, another one (more difficult to measure in large studies) is how one individual chooses to approach his or her job/ career.

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