Challenging work tasks may benefit brain health, according to a new study published in the journal Neurology.

Researchers tested 1,054 people over the age of 75 on their memory and thinking skills every year and a half throughout the duration of their study, which lasted for eight years. Researchers also asked participants about their previous work tasks — and each task was considered either an executive, verbal, or fluid task. For example, an executive task refers to participants evaluating and interpreting information, whereas a fluid task refers to participants analyzing data.

To analyze the results of the memory and thinking tests, researchers used the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE): a clinical test in which “a small decline in points can indicate a clinically relevant deficit.” And when these results combined with a participant’s work history, researchers found people with more challenging careers scored higher on tests by two MMSE points in comparison to people with less challenging careers. People who faced the more challenging tasks also had the slowest rate of cognitive decline; it was half the rate of decline among participants in less challenging careers.

Dr. Francisca S. Then, study author and doctoral candidate at the University of Leipzig in Germany, said in a press release the executive and verbal tasks were “distinctively associated with slow rates of memory and thinking decline.” In fact, participants taking on these types of tasks scored two MME points at the start of the study, improving their score to five points at the end of the study.

"Our study is important because it suggests that the type of work you do throughout your career may have even more significance on your brain health than your education does," Then said. "Education is a well-known factor that influences dementia risk." Then added challenges at work may actually be a positive thing, building up a person’s “mental reserve.”

Larry White, of the department of library and information studies at the University of Buffalo, finds a challenging work environment can improve the knowledge, skills, and abilities [KSAs] of both employees and managers.

"Working experience in a non-challenging work environment may not generally provide for the … creativity, innovation, communication, or problem-solving skills," White explained. "Exercising your KSAs for working in a challenging environment is comparable to preparing to run a race: one prepares for a race by training harder or running longer distances or faster times, not by resting or reducing one’s training levels."

Source: Neurology. 2015.