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  • “Occupational Complexity” Linked to Better Cognitive Performance

    Intellectually Challenging Jobs May Help Promote “Cognitive Reserve”

    Working in a more intellectually challenging job is associated with better memory and other aspects of cognitive functioning, reports a study in the June Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

    In addition, more physically hazardous work is linked to lower cognitive performance, according to the new research by Joseph G. Grzywacz, PhD, of Florida State University and colleagues. They analyzed data on work characteristics and cognitive function tests in nearly 2,000 US workers, drawn from a national study of health and aging.

    Each participant's job was assessed in terms of "occupational complexity," referring to the intellectual challenges of daily work. Both psychosocial and physical workplace factors were evaluated for association with measures of cognitive functioning.

    Higher occupational complexity was related to better self-perceived memory for both women and men. For women only, occupational complexity was linked to higher scores on tests for episodic memory and for executive functioning (skills such as planning and executing tasks).

    In both sexes, those with more physically hazardous jobs had lower episodic memory and executive functioning.

    The study adds to a growing body of evidence linking higher occupational complexity to better lifelong cognitive functioning. That association is consistent with the idea of "cognitive reserve" — that jobs requiring frequent problem-solving enhance the brain structures and connections that protect against cognitive decline.

    The finding that both occupational complexity and physical hazards are independently associated with cognitive function "may offer insight into well-described socioeconomic inequalities in cognitive outcomes," Dr. Grzywacz and coauthors add. They conclude, "Collectively these results highlight the importance of ongoing attention directed toward occupational exposures, both physical and psychosocial, in understanding cognition among adults and potentially cognitive trajectories across adulthood."

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    Citation -- Grzywacz JG, Segel-Karpas D, Lachman ME. Workplace exposures and cognitive function during adulthood: evidence from national survey of midlife development and the O*NET. J Occup Environ Med. 2016;58(6):535-41.

    About the Author -- Dr. Grzywacz may be contacted for interviews at jgrzywacz@fsu.edu.

    About ACOEM -- ACOEM (www.acoem.org), an international society of 4,500 occupational physicians and other health care professionals, provides leadership to promote optimal health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments.

    About the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine -- The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (www.joem.org) is the official journal of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Edited to serve as a guide for physicians, nurses, and researchers, the clinically oriented research articles are an excellent source for new ideas, concepts, techniques, and procedures that can be readily applied in the industrial or commercial employment setting.