A recent study out of Colorado State University has discovered that physical stress at one’s job may be associated with poorer memory and faster brain aging. This study is the first evidence that links occupational stress to accelerated brain and cognitive aging.
It is well known that stress can speed up physical aging and is also a risk factor for many chronic illnesses. The research team looked at trying to understand how occupational exposures can affect the aging of our brains.
The average American worker spends more than eight hours per weekday at work. And most people will remain in the workforce for more than 40 years. By volume, occupational exposures outweigh the time spent on cognitive, leisure and physical activities which all help protect our aging brains and minds.
For their study the team connected responses to an occupational survey with brain imaging data from 99 cognitively normal older adults aged 60 to 79. They discovered that the participants who reported high levels of physical stress in their most recent job had smaller volumes in the hippocampus and also performed poorer on their memory tasks.
The link between physical stress and memory/brain were driven by physical demands at the workplace. These include excessive lifting of boxes onto shelves and reaching which are not necessarily aerobic activity. This is important because earlier work by the team showed that leisure aerobic activity is beneficial for the health of the brain and cognition from children to older adults. The researchers therefore controlled for the effects of leisure physical activity and exercise.
As was expected, leisure physical activity was linked with greater hippocampal volume, however the negative association with physical demands at the workplace persisted. This particular finding suggests that physical demands at the workplace may have parallel yet opposing links to brain health.
Most interventions for postponing decline in cognition focus on leisure and not on a person’s job. While it is unknown territory, the team believe future research can help people make some tweaks to their workplace environment for long term cognitive health.
The care of people with cognitive impairment is very costly on emotional, societal and economic levels. If brain health can be supported earlier in middle-aged workers, it could have a significant impact.
The team did consider and corrected for a variety of other factors that could be related to work environment, hippocampus and memory such as gender, age, educational level, brain size, years in the occupation, job title and general psychological stress.
Currently the research on this topic is fragmented. An earlier study linked mid-life managerial experience with greater hippocampus volume in older adults. Another study indicated that taxi drivers had larger hippocampi than city bus drivers which was presumed to be due to the need to navigate. In the current study, job complexity and psychological stress at work were not related to cognition and hippocampal volume. This study is just another piece of the puzzle.
To view the original scientific study click below