For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Adult-Life Occupational Exposures: Enriched Environment or a Stressor for the Aging Brain?"

by Burzynska, Agnieszka Z; Jiao, Yuqin; Ganster, Daniel C (2018)


Demographic changes and economic demands of aging populations are raising the age of retirement. It is common knowledge that one’s occupation is associated with socioeconomic status, and also has a significant impact on physical and mental health. However, research on the long-term effects of employment on cognition and brain health in old age is still rare. Understanding occupational factors shaping our brains is necessary to develop interventions at the workplace, aimed at optimizing neurocognitive outcomes in old age. This review outlines the emerging empirical research on the relationships between occupational characteristics and cognitive and brain aging. We propose the “brain aging: occupational stimulation and stress” (BOSS) model that outlines the long-term interplay of antiaging (occupational stimulation or environmental enrichment) and proaging factors (occupational stress) on the development and aging of the adult mind and brain. The BOSS model outlines the mechanisms of the employment–brain relationships that include immune system, cortisol responsivity, neurotrophins, hypertension, and sleep quality. Existing at the intersection of organizational psychology, developmental sciences, and neuroscience, the BOSS model offers a framework for future “occupational neuroscience” research. We argue that decisions on retirement age should be viewed not only from an economic, but also from a public health perspective. We conclude that occupational activities need to be acknowledged as an important factor in lifespan cognitive and brain development.

Key Passage

Age-related changes in cognitive performance and brain health affect work performance and successful aging at work, which includes the motivation and capacity to continue working (Fisher, Chaffee, Tetrick, Davalos, & Potter, 2017). The focus of this traditional line of occupational health research is the cognitive capacity and the resulting productivity of older workers. A reduction of occupational hazards and an increase in occupational stimulation are means to maintaining older workers’ productivity and ability to work. However, the relationship between occupation and cognitive aging can also be viewed from a public health perspective. In this view, occupational exposures are means to optimizing the brain health. More specifically, occupational exposures may serve as both long-term protective and risk factors that influence the rate and extent of neurocognitive decline in aging. In other words, occupational exposures may support both cognitive reserve (CR; Stern, 2012) and brain health, prolonging a healthy cognitive lifespan; or they may diminish these reserves, accelerating aging and predisposing for dementia. (p.5)


Retirement, Aged Workers, Development, Healthy Work, Cognitive Development, Cognitive Maintenance, Stress, Enriched Environments


Psychological Centrality of Work

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