How A Stressful Job Could Keep Your Mind Sharp After Retirement

Stressed at work? That might just be a good thing. According to a new study a demanding job that causes you stress today could benefit you in the future.

The study, conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, suggests that having a challenging working environment today has the potential to improve a person's memory later in life.

Gwenith Fisher, a faculty associate at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and assistant professor of psychology at Colorado State University, explained: "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."

The research analysed data on 4,182 participants in the U-M Health and Retirement Study who had worked in a wide variety of jobs before they retired. The participants had each had been doing the same type of work for more than 25 years on average.

Each person was interviewed about eight times between 1992 and 2010, starting when they were between the ages of 51 and 61.

The study assessed participants' mental functioning, using standard tests of episodic memory and mental status over the 18 year period. The tests included recalling a list of 10 nouns immediately after seeing it and also after a time delay, and counting backwards from 100 by sevens.

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Although the differences at the time if retirement were minimal, they grew over time. The study found that people who had worked in jobs with greater mental demands were more likely to have better memories before they retired and more likely to have slower declines in memory after retiring than people who had worked in jobs with fewer mental demands.

"These results suggest that working in an occupation that requires a variety of mental processes may be beneficial to employees," said Jessica Faul, an ISR assistant research scientist.

"It's likely that being exposed to new experiences or more mentally complex job duties may benefit not only newer workers but more seasoned employees as well.

"Employers should strive to increase mental engagement at work and, if possible, outside of work as well, by emphasizing life-long learning activities," she said.

Although the study did consider the formal education and income of each participant, it has been noted that people with higher levels of mental functioning may have picked jobs with more mental demands.

"What people do outside of work could also be a factor," Fisher said. "Some people may be very active in hobbies and other activities that are mentally stimulating and demanding, while others are not."

Fisher's research is published this month in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.