A lack of stimulation can have a long-term negative effect on the brain, according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. However, the claim does not appear to be borne out by the evidence (see our expert verdict below).
The researchers, from Florida State University, looked at cognitive function data from 5,000 workers taking part in the ‘Midlife in the United States’ study.
The study’s lead author, Dr Joseph Grzywacz, aimed to establish the link between cognitive decline and working in unclean and unstimulating environments.
They examined the ability of workers to pay attention, maintain and make use of information they had learned, complete tasks and manage their time.
It was found that the greater a worker’s occupational complexity, the better cognitive performance they had in later life. The correlation was especially strong in women.
Dr Grzywacz said: ‘Psychologists say that the brain is a muscle so if you don’t use it, you lose it, while industrial hygienists point to chemicals in the work environment that may cause decline.
‘There are real things in the workplace that can shape cognitive function — some that you can see or touch, and others you can’t. We showed both matter to cognitive health in adulthood.
‘Both of these issues are important when we think about the long-term health of men and women. Designing jobs to ensure that all workers have some decision making ability may protect cognitive function later in life, but it’s also about cleaning up the workplace.’
A paper in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine suggests that a boring job — that is to say, one in which workers do not have to use their minds to solve problems — leads later in life to reduced cognitive ability and a worse self-perceived memory. Previous research has sometimes come to the opposite conclusion.
The researchers from Florida State University conducted research by telephone on nearly 5,000 American adults of various ages. The researchers were diligent, if nothing else.
The paper raised more questions than it answered. If the research had come to the opposite conclusion, that boring work preserved mental function, would this be an argument in favour of boring work? Were the findings of practical rather than merely of statistical significance? And were the people who did boring or interesting jobs self-selected, that is to say different at the outset of their careers?