A stimulating job that involves complex thinking and interaction with other people seems to help protect against the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, according to research presented Sunday at the Alzheimer’s Association’s International Conference in Toronto.
A complex job can even protect those who are at increased risk of the disease because of their poor diet, according to a major study.
Careers that afforded the highest levels of protections included lawyer, teacher, social worker, engineer and doctor; the fewest protections were seen among people who held jobs such as laborer, cashier, grocery shelf stocker, and machine operator.
“You can never totally forget about the importance of a good diet, but in terms of your risk of dementia, you are better able to accommodate some of the brain damage that is associated with consuming this kind of (unhealthy) diet,” said Matthew Parrott, a post-doctoral fellow at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, who presented the study.
Dr Maria Carrillo, chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Association, said: ‘Formal education and complex occupation could potentially do more than just slow cognitive decline – they may actually help compensate for the cognitive damage done by bad diet and small vessel disease in the brain.
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A second study presented at the conference, by the University of Wisconsin, suggested found that people with increased white matter hyperintensities (WMHs) – white spots that appear on brain scans and are commonly associated with Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline – were able to better tolerate WMH-related damage if they worked primarily with other people rather than with things or data.
Occupations involving “mentoring” – such as social worker, physician, school counselor, psychologist, and pastor – were considered most complex, said Elizabeth Boots, a research specialist at the University of Wisconsin and the study’s presenting author. Work involving taking instructions or helping was considered least complex. The study, conducted by the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, focused on people who were cognitively healthy but at risk for Alzheimer’s.
The studies support previous findings that more stimulating lifestyles are associated with better cognitive outcomes later in life, and bolster the importance of intellectual engagement, said Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging and the Mayo Alzheimer’s Research Center.
“Physical activity has been reasonably well-documented, but with intellectual activity the data get pretty soft…these two studies speak to that,” he said. “What it may mean is the development of Alzheimer’s Disease or cognitive change with aging need not be a passive process; you can do something about it…staying intellectually active whether it be your job or other kinds of activities may actually be beneficial.”
Dr David Reynolds, chief scientific officer of Alzheimer’s Research UK, added: ‘Interestingly, it isn’t simply complexity of work that drives this maintenance of function, but having a job that involves interacting with other people also seems to have been an important factor.’
But Dr Doug Brown, director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: ‘This shouldn’t become an excuse to continue eating stodgy and sugary foods.
‘Getting a healthy balanced diet that’s low in red meat and high in fruit and veg is still one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia throughout life.’