The Impact of Work Physical Stress on Older Age Brain and Memory Decline


Work is a crucial aspect of one’s life, particularly providing an individual’s necessities. A job can also give someone a sense of purpose as it can provide goals to work toward each day while earning an income to support you financially. Most people work diligently in hopes of retiring early and enjoying life in their forties. 

However, there’s a chance that the same job you do to secure your future can also cost you your health. According to a new study by researchers from Colorado State University, physical stress in one’s job may be associated with faster brain aging and poorer memory. 

Although workplaces are considered intellectually and socially enriched environments, they can also be the source of major psychological and physical stressors that can adversely impact one’s mental condition. Hence, the researchers examined whether occupational complexity and stress are linked with brain and memory decline in older adults.

What The Study Suggests

According to sources, an average full-time worker in the United States spends 8.56 hours at work per weekday and remains in the workforce for about 40 years. The extensive period people spend in the workforce potentially plays an important role in cognitive and brain aging. 

However, there are contrasting opinions on this matter, with other sources suggesting that workplaces are enriched with intellectual and social stimulants that provide an avenue to improve intellectual, social, or cognitive functioning.

On the other hand, the adverse effect of physical stress and burnout that may arise from heavy workloads cannot be put aside as it can also lead to negative effects on one’s health and well-being.

To examine the association between occupational experiences and their potential adverse effects on cognitive function, the researchers connected occupational survey responses with brain-imaging data from 99 cognitively normal older adults aged 60 to 79.

The researchers found that those who reported high levels of physical stress in their most recent job had smaller volumes in the hippocampus and poorer performance on memory tasks. The hippocampus is a part of the brain responsible for memory and is affected in normal aging and dementia.

Although previous research has established that stress can increase physical aging and is the risk factor for many chronic health conditions, the researchers claimed that their study is the first to provide evidence that occupational stress can accelerate brain and cognitive aging.

The researchers add that physical demands drive physical stress and brain/memory at work. These physical demands at workplaces often include activities such as excessive reaching or lifting boxes onto shelves that are not necessarily aerobic activities. 

Based on the previous research from the same researchers, aerobic leisure exercise is beneficial for improving brain health and cognition, from children to very old adults. Hence, the researchers controlled for the effects of leisure physical activity and exercise and found that leisure physical activity is associated with greater hippocampal volume, but the negative link with physical demands at work carries on.

Since the evidence on the effects of occupational stimulation and stress on the hippocampus is currently limited, research examining its association should be furthered to understand individual differences in cognitive and brain aging. 

Additionally, the research findings urge early support and interventions for brain health to help prevent bigger economic, emotional, and societal costs that cognitive impairment, including brain and memory decline, has.  

Journal Reference

Burzynska, A. Z., Ganster, D. C., Fanning, J., Salerno, E. A., Gothe, N. P., Voss, M. W., McAuley, E., & Kramer, A. F. (2020). Occupational physical stress is negatively associated with hippocampal volume and memory in older adults. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 14. 

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