Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain characterized by loss of memory, thinking, and language skills, as well as changes in behavior. While it is not a normal part of aging, it is the most common cause of dementia among people age 65 and older. As the population ages, the disease will afflict a larger percentage of people; projections indicate that 16 million Americans could have AD by 2050.

Research to understand the causes and characteristics of AD is ongoing, and scientists are continually seeking new treatments. It has long been thought that an association exists between lifetime occupational attainment and AD; and many studies have demonstrated a protective effect of accomplishments on the job.

In a study published this week in Neurology , researchers sought to build upon prior studies and further specify the association between occupation and AD by accounting for greater details of occupational history including different levels of occupational attainment, multiple occupations, and characteristics of specific jobs.

About the study

This study involved examining the work histories of 357 people, divided by disease status: 122 people had AD and 235 were free of it. All subjects were older than 60 years of age. The researchers reviewed each participant’s work history over four decades, from age 20 to age 59, and studied the type of occupation, industry, duration of each job, and the most important activities or duties performed in each job.

Using Department of Labor standards, investigators identified and recorded several dozen measures of occupational demands—defined as functions or traits associated with an occupation—to determine mental, motor, physical, and social demands of those jobs. Jobs were rated on factors that included complexity, skill, and creativity.

One limitation of the study was that it did not consider socioeconomic status. Researchers admit that factors like income, access to health care, and nutrition, in addition to the fact that people at higher socioeconomic status typically hold more mentally demanding jobs than those at a lower status, might have affected their findings.

The Findings

Overall, the study showed that people with AD had held jobs that were significantly less mentally demanding than those without the disease. In addition, researchers found that the rates of physically demanding jobs were much higher among people with AD. The investigators reported no significant differences in socially demanding occupations between the groups.

A comparison across the decades revealed that the two groups had no difference in mental demands of their jobs during their 20s. However, those without the disease held jobs with increasing mental demands as they moved through their 30s, 40s and 50s, while those with AD experienced no such progression.

Researchers expressed that they are unclear about the exact link between jobs and AD. One theory is that a lack of mentally demanding jobs is to blame for development of AD. Another theory is that an early manifestation of the disease prevents those afflicted from pursuing or keeping more mentally challenging jobs.

What this means for you

According to this study and others, there may be steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing AD, regardless of your work history. Some research has indicated that mentally stimulating activities may result in increased brain cell activity, which may build a reserve of cells that delays the onset or resists the symptoms of AD. In this case, the earlier you start, the longer you have to build up the reserve.

The Alzheimer’s Prevention Foundation International recommends a combination of four prevention and treatment programs to keep your brain healthy. The first component is diet and vitamins. The Foundation suggests a high-quality diet that is low in fat and rich in colorful vegetables that provide antioxidants, whole foods like whole wheat bread and brown rice, and protein from organic sources. In addition, the Foundation believes that supplements provide essential nutrients that enhance brain function.

The second component is exercise. Mental exercise is as crucial as physical exercise, as it can increase connections between brain cells. Playing games that involve strategy, learning to speak a new language, playing a musical instrument, or engaging in other thought-provoking activities are all terrific ways to exercise your mind!

Third is stress management. Stress causes the release of hormones that are toxic to the brain’s memory center. Stress management techniques should be employed on a regular basis. Try a variety of techniques including relaxation, meditation, prayer, and self-hypnosis.

Pharmaceuticals are the fourth component. There is some evidence that certain medications can indirectly delay the progression of memory loss. As with any program that involves prescription drugs, you should not embark on it alone, but in close association with your doctor.

If you are concerned that you or a loved one may be affected by AD, seek immediate treatment. Even though there is no cure for AD, an early diagnosis is recommended to manage symptoms and plan for the future.