BY SARAH OWENS
When it comes to how work environments affect brain health, the news is mixed. On the one hand, dealing with complex problems at work can benefit cognitive health, but a dangerous, fast-paced, or divisive work environment may take a toll on the brain, according to a new study published on June 16 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
Occupational Factors that Affect Cognition
The researchers assessed workplace characteristics using the Occupational Information Network, or O*NET, which covers 974 occupations, to identify physical and psychosocial factors they suspected would affect cognitive health. These factors included physical hazards, how hard the job is and how fast it has to be performed, how often employees are required to solve complex problems, and whether there is conflict with coworkers or customers.
They hypothesized that occupations that require employees to work long hours, deal with unpleasant customers, or endure distracting noises and lights might negatively affect employees' cognitive function. They also wanted to test whether occupations that require solving complex problems might benefit employees' cognitive function.
Assessing Occupation and Cognitive Function
To test their theories, the researchers analyzed data about cognition and occupation from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study, a national longitudinal study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, of the health and well-being of middle-aged adults in the United States.
They identified the occupations of 4,186 adults ranging in age from 32 to 81 and matched their occupations to related workplace hazards using information from the O*NET. Then they assessed the participants' cognition over the telephone using tests of word recall, verbal fluency, and inductive reasoning. The tests were designed to measure executive function (the ability to concentrate, remember events, and juggle tasks); episodic memory, or the personal memory of past events; and self-perceived memory, or how people perceive their own ability to remember.
The Brain-Occupation Link
After matching participants' occupations with their results on cognitive function tests, the researchers, led by Joseph Grzywacz, PhD, chair of the department of Family and Child Science at Florida State University in Tallahassee, found that all factors they examined—including the pace of work, job complexity, and workplace conflict—affected "nearly every indicator of cognitive function." Workers who had to solve complex problems as part of their job performed better in all three cognitive domains (executive functioning, episodic memory, and self-perceived memory).
Occupations that had a high degree of conflict, required employees to work long hours, or had lots of physical hazards negatively affected employees' cognitive health, particularly in the areas of executive functioning and episodic memory.
Age- and Sex-Related Differences
When the researchers analyzed the data further they found that the executive function of older workers was more affected by conflict, and that for women, solving complex problems benefited both episodic memory and executive functioning.
The results indicate that exposure to certain occupational factors may explain differences in cognitive aging, the researchers said. If doctors or caregivers notice signs of cognitive decline in a patient, friend, or family member, they may look to the workplace for an explanation.
Managers, bosses, and others in charge at work have a responsibility to maintain a clean, safe workplace, suggested Dr. Grzywacz in a press release. "Designing jobs to ensure that all workers have some decision-making ability may protect cognitive function later in life, but it's also about cleaning up the workplace."