Want better brain health when you’re older? Get a desk job, study suggests

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Health experts believe keeping your body active usually means good things from your brain too. You might think having a job with lots of physical activity keeps you sharper than sitting in an office all day, but a new study finds the opposite is often true.

Researchers say tests on office workers reveal their brain health remains stronger later in life.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge report that adults with physically inactive careers score higher on cognition tests compared to those in manual labor. The risk for poor cognition is actually three times higher for workers with physically intense jobs.

“The often used mantra ‘what is good for the heart, is good for the brain’ makes complete sense, but the evidence on what we need to do as individuals can be confusing,” study author Shabina Hayat says in a university statement.

Hard work may not translate to the mind

Scientists examined 8,500 men and women between 40 and 79 years-old who had a wide variety of backgrounds and job qualifications. These participants took a health and lifestyle questionnaire which looks at their activity levels in and outside of work. After 12 years, researchers brought the study group back to test their memory, attention, visual processing speed, and reading ability.

The results reveal people in physically active jobs are usually less active after their shift than desk workers. Participants with inactive jobs throughout the 12 years regularly score in the top 10 percent of the cognition tests.

“While regular physical activity has considerable benefits for protection against many chronic diseases, other factors may influence its effect on future poor cognition,” Hayat explains.

“This suggests that because desk jobs tend to be more mentally challenging than manual occupations, they may offer protection against cognitive decline.”

Desk jobs linked to IQ

If hard work at your job isn’t resulting in brain health, what is? Researchers say activity during leisure time and desk-based work may promote cognitive health, but the results are not conclusive.

Hayat’s team adds more research needs to be done on the different types of physical activity. They also want to see the links between brain health and poor education and socio-economic backgrounds.

The study finds participants with no qualifications are most likely to be working in manual labor. Despite similarly low levels of education, those with office work continued to score higher on these IQ tests than their peers doing physical work.

The study appears in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

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