Longitudinal Study Finds Job Demands Can Affect Postretirement Memory

Memory issues often emerge post retirement. There are many reasons given as to why memory fails as we age; however, it appears that work-related stress and lack of meaningful work does affect more than just our physical health.  A recent study by Dr. Ross Andel, School of Aging Studies, and colleagues Frank Infurna, Arizona State University, Elizabeth Hahn Rickenbach, Saint Anselm College, Michael Crowe, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Lisa Marchiondo, Wayne State University, and Gwenith Fisher, Colorado State University, found that job demands were associated with significantly poorer episodic memory at retirement and an accelerated rate of decline in episodic memory following retirement.  Job demands are defined as a combination of work-related stress and intellectual engagement/challenge at work. 

This study is the first longitudinal study that examined work-related stress in relation to cognitive ageing while also taking into consideration the role of retirement.  Using data from the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study, they examined 3779 individuals who had been employed for 10 or more years prior to retirement and who had been assessed for episodic memory performance every other year for up to 20 years, including after retirement.  Data from the Occupational Information Network was used to score occupations for job control and job demands, and to measure job strain (job demands/job control).  Participants averaged 63 years of age at retirement, which closely corresponds to the current average retirement age in the United States. 

Dr. Andel and colleagues found that persons who experienced lower job control and greater job strain had steeper episodic memory decline, especially postretirement, independent of relevant confounds.  Women and men experienced similar declines in relation to work-related stress.

Picture Ross AndelAccording to Dr. Andel, “There are two plausible explanations: First, it is known that the hippocampus is critical for memory functioning. Long-term exposure to work-related stress can affect lead to the reduction in hippocampal activity due to the response to stress generated by the endocrine system. Second, people with low work-related stress are better at preparing themselves for retirement psychologically and by staying mentally active, which can lead to better postretirement trajectories of cognitive change.”

“This link has important implications for job design and the development of interventions to maintain or increase memory prior to and postretirement,” Dr. Andel said.  “For example, finding meaningful roles and opportunities for self-direction among workers with high levels of work-related stress may lead to better postretirement outcomes.”  The more an individual is connected to the belief that his or work matters, the better he or she copes with stress.

For more information on this and other work by Dr. Andel, please see his website or email him at randel@usf.edu.

Andel, R., Infurna, F. J., Hahn Rickenbach, E. A., Crowe, M., Marchiondo, L., & Fisher, G. G. (2015). Job strain and trajectories of change in episodic memory before and after retirement: results from the Health and Retirement Study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.  Advance online publication.  doi:10.1136/jech-2014-204754  Available at http://jech.bmj.com/content/early/2015/01/20/jech-2014-204754.long (may require subscription).

The School of Aging Studies, one of the nation's oldest and largest degree-awarding programs in Gerontology, is one of seven academic departments/schools in the College of Behavioral & Community Sciencesat the University of South Florida, in Tampa, Florida.