A New Study of 100,000 Workers Says Having a Tough Job Leads to This Surprising Health Benefit

Here we are in the midst of the Great Resignation, with people in all lines of work considering whether it’s really worth it to them to continue the paths they’re on. 

Then, from out of almost nowhere comes a new health study suggesting you might want to think twice about ditching your job. (You might also want to download my free ebook, 12 Simple Tricks That Will Make Your Life a Lot Easier.)

In short, if your work is challenging, stimulating, demanding, and involves high levels of responsibility, the mental workouts you give your brain each day may help safeguard you against what is probably the medical condition most feared as people grow older: dementia.

Writing in The BMJ, which is the peer-reviewed journal of the British Medical Association, lead author Mika Kivimäki, a professor at University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, along with his colleagues concluded two fascinating things:

  • First, people whose jobs are highly mentally stimulating wind up with a lower risk of dementia in their later years than those with less-stimulating work
  • Perhaps even more important, there’s support for the idea that the nature of the work might help contribute to the lower rate of dementia, rather than simply reflecting a correlative relationship.

Let’s go to the methodology. This was actually a study of studies, meaning that the researchers looked at analyses that incorporated more than 100,000 participants over a 17-year period, tracking the types of work that each person did, and their likelihood of being diagnosed with dementia later in life:

[The study] suggests that people with cognitively stimulating jobs have a lower risk of dementia in old age than those with non-stimulating jobs. A possible mechanism for this association is the finding that cognitive stimulation is associated with lower levels of plasma proteins that might inhibit axonogenesis and synaptogenesis and increase dementia risk in old age.

What that means in practical terms is that having a job that requires you to use your brain constantly under the right kinds of conditions can lead to less likelihood of brain difficulties later in life.

What are the right kinds of conditions? The researchers listed two main factors:

  • Cognitive stimulation, which basically involves demanding tasks and requirements
  • High “job decision latitude,” also characterized as “job control.”

Less demanding jobs with less control were linked to a higher degree of dementia.

This is a pretty accessible study for non-scientists, so I do recommend simply reading it in full. Also, it’s not behind a paywall. But in terms of workplace and career guidance, what are the takeaways?

First, it’s an argument in favor of finding and keeping the most challenging job you can find — obviously, “challenging” in a positive sense of the word. 

This isn’t an argument for sticking with a position where you work for a toxic employer, or have to deal with a difficult commute. Rather, it’s about never-ending growth, always seeking more responsibility, and looking for the kind of work that challenges you to learn and do new things.

(It’s the difference between being paid to do Sudoku puzzles, and getting paid to count 10,000 toothpicks every day.)

Next, it’s an argument in favor of continuing to work — perhaps even giving up the notion of traditional retirement. 

Again, nobody is saying to stick in a role that doesn’t hold your attention or challenge you in a positive way. But, given the sheer degree to which so much of our society seems to view work-life as a vehicle designed simply to get you to retirement, maybe this kind of research suggests there’s another, healthier path.

Worth noting: The researchers differentiated work-related cognitive stimulation from non-work-related cognitive stimulation, and found that work-related stimulation is likely far more beneficial.

So, perhaps forget about the notion that people can look forward to early retirement, living lives of leisure, and engaging part-time in activities that produce the same results. This study, at least, suggests that won’t work.

The theory as to why is fairly straightforward: Work-related cognitive stimulation amounts to tens of thousands of hours, while non-work-related cognitive stimulation amounts to less total time in most cases, and also doesn’t involve the same risks associated with not putting in the required effort.

Maybe that’s too much to absorb; maybe it’s too limited to make big career decisions on.

And of course, you have to make your own choices. But if you’re wondering whether a challenging job that demands your full attention is the right thing for you — at least now, you have another factor to consider.

(Don’t forget the free ebook, 12 Simple Tricks That Will Make Your Life a Lot Easier.)

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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