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Mental Health Center

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Your Mentally Stimulating Job May Help Keep You Sharp in Retirement

'Use it or lose it' might apply to brainpower, study author says


Differences in memory at the time of retirement were not large, but they ended up doubling at 15 years following retirement, even after researchers controlled for factors such as education, health and economic status.

The study authors found similar results when they looked at questions used to assess mental impairment and dementia. By 15 years after retirement, people with mentally challenging jobs scored more than 50 percent better than people with less-demanding jobs.

The findings were published online recently in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

This new study adds to a growing mound of evidence suggesting that people who want to keep their brain healthy after retirement need to start working their mental muscles earlier in life, said Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer's Association.

"It gels really nicely with other things we've seen where midlife is the point at which people really need to pay attention to their brain health," Fargo said.

There are a couple of theories why mentally challenging jobs might help preserve later brain capability, study author Fisher said.

By working the brain more, a person could end up creating more neurons during their years of employment, she explained. Later on, when age starts to take its toll, they will have more mental capacity and any loss of neurons will do less harm to their memory and reasoning.

There's also the "use it or lose it" hypothesis. "Much like muscles on our body, if you use the brain you strengthen it, and if you don't, it can atrophy," Fisher said.

But not everybody can have a mentally challenging job. To quote the movie "Caddyshack": "The world needs ditch diggers, too." Are those folks out of luck?

Not necessarily, both experts say.

"There are all kinds of things you can do to maintain your mental activity in midlife, outside of work," Fargo said.

Reading, playing games, volunteering for charity, socializing with friends, attending lectures and joining a book club are all activities that anyone can undertake to keep their brains active and give them a good workout, Fisher and Fargo agreed.

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