Work matters: why learning on the job is key for healthy aging

How the nature of work affects the human aging process over a lifetime has received little attention until now. A recent Psychology and Aging piece titled “Novel Information Processing at Work Across Time Is Associated with Cognitive Change in Later Life: A 14-Year Longitudinal Study” by Ursula Staudinger, Yan-Liang Yu and Bin Cheng sheds new light on the interplay between work conditions and adult development. The authors found that exposure to more novel processing at work (NPW) across time attenuates cognitive decline. Their findings are an important contribution to designing work in a way that also promotes workers’ cognitive health.

It is already recognized that people in occupations with higher job complexity (e.g. legislators, managers, architects) generally show better cognitive performance, slower cognitive decline and also have a reduced risk of developing dementia (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease) later in life. “We wanted to find out more about the underlying mechanisms of job complexity,” says Staudinger. “And even more, what this means for workers in jobs with less complexity such as truck drivers, cleaners or bakers.”

Never stop learning

Applying multilevel transition models, Staudinger and her co-authors observed that novel information processing at work is a job characteristic that is linked to job complexity (in relation to both data and people) and therefore may reveal some of the mechanisms responsible for the protective effect on cognitive aging. “Not only has it a supporting effect on mental stimulation, but it can also be applied to less complex jobs,” Staudinger explains. “Thus, less cognitively able and less educated workers may also benefit from its protective characteristic.”

Changes at work are good for cognitive development

Novel information processing generally occurs when there is a mismatch between what we are used to do and what a given, new work task requires. When we bridge this gap, learning takes place. People that work in jobs that require more novelty processing, such as incorporating new pieces of information or facing new situational aspects on a more regular basis, are likely to garner greater cognitive benefits compared to those in jobs with less changes.

Data from over 4,000 individuals

“We looked at data from more than 4,000 individuals over a 14-year window,” says Staudinger. This included data from the Health and Retirement Study as well as more detailed information on occupational characteristics from the free online-database Occupational Information Network (O*Net) in the United States. “What we found is that exposure to increased novelty processing particularly slowed down cognitive decline in executive function and episodic memory, two domains that usually show strong age-related decline.” Their study not only focused on paid worked, but also considered the mental stimulation of leisure and volunteering activities.

For Staudinger, the findings of the new study highlight the importance of promoting lifelong learning. “While jobs of higher complexity confer benefits for cognitive aging, we must not overlook socially disadvantaged individuals in less complex jobs who are at greater risk of cognitive impairment,” she says. “That’s why work-related activities that incur learning processes are so important.” Staudinger is convinced that introducing some kind of novelty such as work task changes from time to time is possible in most jobs: “Simple measures can be easily implemented in daily work routines. They are an essential building block for strengthening societies of longer lives.”

More about this topic: Re-Thinking Human Aging