2 Studies Illustrate Reasons to Keep Mentally Engaged While Aging

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • How important is it to stay mentally stimulated throughout your life? I think it’s really important. Obviously, staying mentally engaged makes life more fun, but secondly, it can help protect your brain.

    Two new studies underscore this importance. The first study looks at people’s work life while the second focuses on an important part of many people’s personal lives – being a grandparent.

    So let’s focus on the study focused on careers first. Researchers delved into whether the characteristics of jobs that the person holds will have any effect on cognitive functioning both before and after retirement.  The study used data from 4,182 adults who participated in the Health and Retirement Study from 1992 until 2010. This study tracked middle-aged adults prior to and after their retirement. These participants were interviewed every two years during the duration of the study and were asked questions about the mental demands of their jobs, such as analyzing data, making decisions, problem-solving and creative thinking. The researchers also assessed the participants’ memory and reasoning skills.

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    The researchers found that holding a job that has higher levels of mental demands was linked with higher levels of cognitive functioning after retirement as well as a slower rate of cognitive decline once a person has retired. Interestingly, significantly differences in memory were not seen between those with higher mental demands and those who worked repetitive jobs when they retired. However, there was a dramatic difference within 15 years of retirement. People who had held  stimulating jobs had a 50-percent higher score in memory than those who had handled more repetitive professional responsibilities (such as working on an assembly line). Participants who held less stimulating jobs also were found to have double the rate of mental impairment and dementia 15 years after retirement than participants who had held challenging jobs.

    So now let’s look at the other study that focused on grandparenting.  This study out of Australia looked at the mental sharpness of 186 grandmothers between the ages of 57 and 68 who took care of their grandchildren. The researchers asked participants to take three different tests to assess their mental sharpness. The grandmothers also were asked whether they thought their adult children had been demanding of their time in the previous year.

    The researchers’ analysis found that grandmothers who cared for their grandchildren one day a week performed better on two of the three assessments.  However, grandmothers who took care of their grandchildren for five days a week or more actually performed significantly worse on tests that assessed working memory and mental processing speed. These grandmothers also felt that their adult children had been more demanding of their time, suggesting that mood may play a role in these results.

    So what are the takeaways from these two studies? Here are my two suggestions:

    • Find ways to stretch your mind. You may work in a repetitive job, but you can find other ways to use other parts of your brain. Take a class in something new. Chair a committee for a nonprofit you support.  Get involved as a board member in an organization or church.
    • Mental stimulation needs to continue as you age. While I appreciate the suggestion of mood making a difference in the grandmothers’ mental status, I’d also suggest that they are not getting as much mental stimulation always hanging around the grandkids as they would by playing bridge with their friends or joining a quilt group. Therefore, I really think it’s important for older adults to continue to stretch their abilities and, when possible, avoid serving as the regular daytime caregiver for their grandchildren.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

  • Fisher, G. G., et al. (2014). Mental work demands, retirement and longitudinal trajectories of cognitive functioning. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

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    MedlinePlus. (2014). Your mentally stimulating job may help keep you sharp in retirement.

    North American Menopause Society. (2014). Grandmas stay sharp when they care for grandkids once a week.

Published On: April 14, 2014