New research from the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention (WRAP) and the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) shows that people whose jobs involve complex interactions with other people fare the best as their brains age. These include jobs that involve mentoring, negotiating or teaching.
Elizabeth Boots, a member of Dr. Ozioma Okonkwo’s lab, presented research this week at the 2016 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in Toronto showing that occupations that require complex thinking seem to protect older adults from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.
It was one of several studies presented this week showing lifestyle has an effect on cognitive decline.
“These new data add to a growing body of research that suggests more stimulating lifestyles, including more complex work environments with people, are associated with better cognitive outcomes in later life,” said Dr. Maria Carrillo, Alzheimer’s Association chief science officer.
In the Wisconsin study, Boots and Okonkwo looked at brain scans of 284 people enrolled in the long-running WRAP study. The people had an average age of about 60 and were at higher risk for Alzheimer’s because of parental family history. Researchers also assessed the research participants for the complexity of their jobs, and whether they primarily worked with people, data, or things. They found that those who had complex jobs working with people were cognitively healthy, even though their brains showed higher numbers of white matter lesions, which are markers of Alzheimer’s and cerebrovascular disease.
Okonkwo says the study is further proof of the theory of “cognitive reserve,” which describes the brain’s resilience and ability to maintain function despite injury. Childhood intelligence, educational attainment, and adult occupation all contribute to a person’s cognitive reserve.
“These findings suggest that a mentally engaging lifestyle can lessen the harmful effects that abnormal brain changes have on cognitive health,” Boots said. “We found that greater white matter injury was not detrimental to cognitive function in those with increased occupational complexity.
“Interestingly, this finding seemed to be driven by complexity of work with people – but not data or things – suggesting that social interaction in the workplace could play an important role in boosting cognitive reserve.”
Thus, people at risk may be able to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms by staying in school when young, and then working at a mentally challenging job involving other people.
The WRAP study began in 2000, when Dr. Mark Sager of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute began enrolling middle-aged people at risk of developing Alzheimer’s. It currently has about 1,500 participants, who come for regular tests of cognitive skills, as well as brain scans, cerebral spinal fluid draws and other testing.
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health
Susan Lampert Smith