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!


  1. elona on December 26, 2007 at 5:02

    Thank you for the opti­mistic outlook.

  2. Alvaro on December 27, 2007 at 8:44

    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 on December 29, 2007 at 2:26

    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 on December 29, 2007 at 6:01

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

  5. Blaise on January 6, 2009 at 5:39

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

  6. Alvaro Fernandez on January 7, 2009 at 1:06

    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.

English About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.

English About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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