The study, which was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, used occupational survey responses and brain-imaging data from 99 ‘cognitively normal’ older adults, aged between 60 and 79.
The study found those who reported higher levels of physical stress in their occupations has smaller volumes in the hippocampus and performed worse on memory tasks.
Department of human development and family studies assistant professor, Aga Burzynska, said the findings are the first of their kind, linking occupational stress to brain and cognitive aging.
“We know that stress can accelerate physical aging and is the risk factor for many chronic illnesses,” Burzynska said.
“But this is the first evidence that occupational stress can accelerate brain and cognitive aging.
“An average American worker spends more than eight hours at work per weekday, and most people remain in the workforce for over 40 years.
“By pure volume, occupational exposures outweigh the time we spend on leisure social, cognitive and physical activities, which protect our aging minds and brains,” she said.
Burzynska said the links between physical stress in the workplace and brain health were largely determined by the physical demands by occupation, including excessive reaching, or lifting, not necessarily aerobic activity.
“This finding suggests that physical demands at work may have parallel yet opposing associations with brain health,” she said.
“Most interventions for postponing cognitive decline focus on leisure, not on your job.
“It’s kind of unknown territory, but maybe future research can help us make some tweaks to our work environment for long-term cognitive health.
“Caring for people with cognitive impairment is so costly, on economic, emotional and societal levels.
“If we can support brain health earlier, in middle-aged workers, it could have an enormous impact.
“The research on this topic is so fragmented.
“One previous study linked mid-life managerial experience with greater hippocampus volume in older age.
“Another showed that taxi drivers had larger hippocampi than a city’s bus drivers, presumably due to the need to navigate.
“In our study, job complexity and psychological stress at work were not related to hippocampal volume and cognition.
“Clearly, our study is just one piece of the puzzle, and further research is needed,” Burzynska said.