Occupational Physical Activity in Midlife Tied to Later Cognitive Decline

a older age man exercising

As the world’s population ages, academics are becoming more interested in finding the preventable variables that lead to cognitive decline and age-related disability. Occupational variables, notably occupational physical activity (PA), and their consequences on cognitive health have lately taken over as the principal focus of research.  

More physical activity is often regarded to improve mental health. Nonetheless, this Norwegian study calls that premise into doubt. Physically demanding employment is related to an increased risk of dementia, in contrast to regular leisure-time exercise, which is consistently associated with a decreased risk of cognitive impairment.  

This “PA paradox,” which has been highlighted in earlier studies, is that physical activity, whether at work or in leisure, has a negative link with health outcomes. Given this apparent contradiction, the World Health Organization has called for more research into the relative advantages of the two forms of physical exercise.  

This study uses job history data acquired from registries to solve the limitations of previous studies. The study uses standardized data to relate individual occupational data to markers of occupational qualities, avoiding the possible memory bias associated with self-reported physical activity. A life-course approach was used to examine a person’s professional history, which included multiple employment.  

According to the findings, a high degree of physical exertion at work in adulthood is connected with a greater risk of cognitive impairment in the future. After controlling for characteristics such as education, income, marital status, and lifestyle, the study discovered that people with stable high occupational PA were more likely to develop moderate cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia.  

These relationships might be explained by the age-related deterioration in brain function and cognitive capacity produced by physically demanding employment. Work that is excessively demanding on the body’s resources may result in memory loss, cognitive impairment, and hippocampal shrinking. The research does not rule out confounding factors such as genetics, socioeconomic position, and environmental exposures.  

Salespeople, nursing and care aides, and crop farmers had the most excellent VOPAC trajectories due to high levels of physical labor, stress, and, at times, low socioeconomic position. The study implies that factors other than occupational physical activity, such as job characteristics and socioeconomic position, might account for the findings.  

Furthermore, the study shows that the brain reacts differently to different levels of physical activity. Despite a wealth of data showing the benefits of physical activity for brain health during leisure time, the study raises concerns about the potential adverse effects of excessive physical exertion on the brain in later life.  

As the findings of this study reveal, it is vital to incorporate vocational variables in order to comprehend cognitive health in old age completely. According to the study, further research is needed to fully understand the complicated interaction between different types and degrees of physical exercise and their influence on cognitive performance as we age. 

Journal reference 



Author links open overlay panelEkaterina Zotcheva a b, a, b, c, d, e, … SummaryBackgroundHigh levels of occupational physical activity (PA) have been linked to an increased risk of dementia. We assessed the association of trajectories of occupational PA at ages 33–65 with risk of dementia and mild cognitive impairment (MCI) at ages 70+.MethodsWe included 7005 participants (49.8% were women. (2023). Trajectories of occupational physical activity and risk of later-life mild cognitive impairment and dementia: the HUNT4 70+ study. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2666776223001400?via%3Dihub#sec4 

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