A recent study examined how the cognitive demands of a job can impact cognitive changes before and after retirement. Using data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative survey of 4,182 individuals, researchers looked at how highly mentally demanding work versus low mentally demanding work affected both the level and rate of change in cognitive functioning. Looking at the data collected over the 18 years of this survey, the researchers found that higher levels of mental demands at work were associated with higher levels of mental functioning before retirement, and were associated with slower rates of cognitive decline after retirement. Importantly, this observed impact of mentally challenging work remained even when education, income, and health status were taken into account.
The individuals included in the study were between 51 and 61 years of age when the study began. They had worked in their occupation for at least 10 years, and had retired between the ages of 51 to 71. On average, the participants were 55 when they entered the study and the average age of retirement was 62. Participants worked in their occupation for an average of 27 years. The types of mentally engaging activities that jobs were scored on included analyzing data or information, developing objectives and strategies, making decisions and solving problems, evaluating information, and thinking creatively. Cognitive functioning was measured in two ways. The first was a measure of episodic memory, or how well words could be recalled immediately after being presented them and then after a delay. The second was a measure of mental status, which included tasks such as counting backwards and some items taken from the commonly used Mini-Mental State Exam.
Overall, the participants all showed declines in memory leading up to their retirement. Interestingly, the rate of memory decline was not as steep after retirement compared to the years leading up to retirement, although this difference was small. Turning to the main focus of this study, individuals in jobs with greater memory demands were more likely to show better episodic memory before retirement and showed slower declines in the years after retirement. Higher episodic memory scores were also associated with being a woman, younger age, higher education, and having fewer depressive symptoms. However, even when these factors were taken into account, the data still showed that a more mentally engaging job had a positive impact on memory. Importantly, the difference between individuals in high and low mentally demanding jobs grew the longer the participants were retired. Over 15 years, the difference between the two groups doubled.
As for mental status, again individuals with higher mental engagements exhibited higher mental status, and the decline of mental status scores was less steep for those in more highly mentally engaging jobs. Other factors that were associated with higher mental status were being a man, younger age, greater education, more years in the same occupation, fewer depressive symptoms, and better self-rated health. Again, on the mental status factor, the differences between low and high mentally engaging jobs grew over time after retirement.
Although this study has some limitations, such as not being able to take into account whether or not individuals were participating in mentally engaging activities outside work, it does suggest that taking into account previous working life cognitive activities can predict differing rates of cognitive decline among retirees. It also suggests that special attention should be paid to retirees who have engaged in less mentally engaging occupations, since they are likelier to have steeper rates of cognitive decline.
Fisher GG. Stachowski A, Infurna FJ, et al. Mental work demands, retirement, and longitudinal trajectories of cognitive functioning. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. (2014). DOI: 10.1037/a0035724