By Patrick Foster
Lawyers, teachers and doctors have a better chance of fighting off the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, because of the complex nature of their jobs, scientists reported this week.
Researchers found that people whose jobs combined complex thinking with social engagement with others – such as social workers and engineers – were better protected against the onset of Alzheimer’s, compared to those in manual work.
The study came as another report suggested that people with a poor diet could protect themselves against cognitive decline by adopting a mentally stimulating lifestyle.
Both pieces of research, published at the international conference of the Alzheimer’s Association, in Toronto, examined the impact of complex thinking on the onset of the disease.
In the first study, carried out by scientists at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centre, in Wisconsin, researchers examined white matter hyperintensities (WMHs) – white spots that appear on brain scans and are associated with Alzheimer’s – in 284 late-middle-aged patients considered at risk of contracting the disease.
They found that people who worked primarily with other people, as opposed to with “things or data”, were less likely to be affected by brain damage indicated by WMHs.
While lawyers, social workers, teachers and doctors were best protected, those who enjoyed the least protection included shelf-stackers, machine operators and labourers.
Elizabeth Boots, a researcher on the project, said: “These findings indicate that participants with higher occupational complexity are able to withstand pathology associated with Alzheimer’s and cerebrovascular disease and perform at a similar cognitive level as their peers.
“This association is primarily driven by work with people, rather than data or things. These analyses underscore the importance of social engagement in the work setting for building resilience to Alzheimer’s disease.”
The second study, carried out by Baycrest Health Sciences, in Toronto, examined the diet of 351 older adults.
Researchers found that those who had a traditional Western diet of red and processed meat, white bread, potatoes and sweets were more likely to experience cognitive decline.
However, those who adhered to such a diet but who had a mentally stimulating lifestyle enjoyed some protection from such decline.
Dr Matthew Parrott, one member of the team, said: “Our results show the role higher educational attainment, mentally stimulating work and social engagement can play in protecting your brain from cognitive decline, counteracting some negative effects of an unhealthy diet.
“This adds to the growing body of evidence showing how various lifestyle factors may combine to increase or protect against vulnerability to Alzheimer’s disease.”
Other research put forward at the convention included a study showing that digital brain training exercises can help stave of Alzheimer’s, and another paper that suggested that some newly-identified genes may also increase resilience to the disease.
Maria C. Carrillo, the chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Association, said: “These new data add to a growing body of research that suggests more stimulating lifestyles, including more complex work environments with other people, are associated with better cognitive outcomes in later life.
“As each new study emerges, we further understand just how powerful cognitive reserve can be in protecting the brain from disease. Formal education and complex occupation could potentially do more than just slow cognitive decline – they may actually help compensate for the cognitive damage done by bad diet and small vessel disease in the brain.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that in addition to searching for pharmacological treatments, we need to address lifestyle factors to better treat and ultimately prevent Alzheimer’s and other dementias.”