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Mentally-Challenging Jobs Boost Mental Health After Retirement

Update Date: Mar 25, 2014 11:41 AM EDT

One of the earliest signs of aging is declining cognitive health. Even though a select few seniors continue to stay mentally sharp, many of them will start to suffer from memory loss and other mental health issues. In a new study, researchers examined one way that could help keep people's brains sharp long after retirement. According to the findings, having a mentally demanding job can boost mental health in the future.

"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," said Gwenith Fisher, a faculty associate at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and assistant professor of psychology at Colorado State University reported in the press release.

For this study, the team examined data on 4,182 participants taken from the U-M Health and Retirement Study. This study had interviewed over 20,000 older Americans every two years from 1992 through to 2010. At the beginning of the surveys, the participants were between the ages of 51 and 61 and had worked for more than 25 years prior to retirement. The sample group was representative of the nation.

The research team categorized the participants' jobs into different levels of mental activity. They measured mental activity based on how often the individual analyzed data, developed objectives and strategies, evaluated information, and thought creatively. Decision-making and problem solving were also evaluated.

The team then assessed the participants' mental health through standard tests that measured episodic memory and overall mental status. After taking the participants' health, depressive symptoms, economic status and demographic characteristics into account, the researchers discovered that jobs that required more mental activity were tied to greater mental health. The participants holding these mentally demanding jobs had better memory and slower cognitive decline.

"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."

The researchers acknowledged the fact that their study did not examine the relationship between mental health and participation in mentally stimulating activities or hobbies post retirement.

The study was published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

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