A new study out of Colorado State University has found that physical stress in one’s job may be associated with faster brain aging and poorer memory.
Aga Burzynska, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and her research team connected occupational survey responses with brain-imaging data from 99 cognitively normal older adults, age 60 to 79. They found that those who reported high levels of physical stress in their most recent job had smaller volumes in the hippocampus and performed poorer on memory tasks. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is critical for memory and is affected in both normal aging and in dementia.
“We know that stress can accelerate physical aging and is the risk factor for many chronic illnesses,” Burzynska said. “But this is the first evidence that occupational stress can accelerate brain and cognitive aging…“Most interventions for postponing cognitive decline focus on leisure, not on your job. It’s kind of unknown territory, but maybe future research can help us make some tweaks to our work environment for long-term cognitive health.”
Occupational Physical Stress Is Negatively Associated With Hippocampal Volume and Memory in Older Adults (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience).
- Abstract: Our jobs can provide intellectually and socially enriched environments but also be the source of major psychological and physical stressors. As the average full-time worker spends >8 h at work per weekday and remains in the workforce for about 40 years, occupational experiences must be important factors in cognitive and brain aging. Therefore, we studied whether occupational complexity and stress are associated with hippocampal volume and cognitive ability in 99 cognitively normal older adults. We estimated occupational complexity, physical stress, and psychological stress using the Work Design Questionnaire (Morgeson and Humphrey, 2006), Quantitative Workload Inventory and Interpersonal Conflict at Work Scale (Spector and Jex, 1998). We found that physical stress, comprising physical demands and work conditions, was associated with smaller hippocampal volume and poorer memory performance. These associations were independent of age, gender, brain size, socioeconomic factors (education, income, and job title), duration of the job, employment status, leisure physical activity and general stress. This suggests that physical demands at work and leisure physical activity may have largely independent and opposite effects on brain and cognitive health. Our findings highlight the importance of considering midlife occupational experiences, such as work physical stress, in understanding individual trajectories of cognitive and brain aging.
Using the Work Design Questionnaire, Physical Demands were self-evaluated with these survey items:
- The job requires a great deal of muscular endurance.
- The job requires a great deal of muscular strength.
- The job requires a lot of physical effort.
Work Conditions were self-evaluated with these survey items:
- The work place is free from excessive noise.
- The climate at the work place is comfortable in terms of temperature and humidity.
- The job has a low risk of accident.
- The job takes place in an environment free from health hazards (e.g., chemicals, fumes, etc.).
- The job occurs in a clean environment.