Tough work (if you can get it)

Why that challenging job might be the best thing for your brain. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Good morning, everyone! Before we dive into today’s newsletter, I have a fun announcement. Tomorrow marks the launch of Understandably Live 2.0.

Just ahead of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I’ll be interviewing noted author and foreign correspondent Toby Harden, whose latest book is First Casualty: the Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11.

The story is largely about Team Alpha, the first eight Americans behind enemy lines in Afghanistan after 9/11. Among other things, Toby managed to interview all of the team’s surviving members. I think you’ll find it fascinating.

I’ll tell you more tomorrow morning—but I’m also excited about the new way we’re going to try doing these interviews, which is why I’m calling this version 2.0.

No more signing up ahead of time, logging into Zoom, and all that.

Instead, we’ll be live-streaming to YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn, all at once.

All you have to do is mark your calendar for Thursday, September 9, 1 pm ET, and then go to any of the links you’ll see here:

Watch Understandably Live on YouTube

Watch Understandably Live on LinkedIn

Watch Understandably Live on Facebook

Knock on wood, it will all go smoothly; but like almost everything on Understandably, we’ll give it a try and if it doesn’t work, we’ll improve on it next time. (But I think it will work.)

Again, that’s Thursday, September 9 (that’s tomorrow) at 1 pm ET. More details on Toby’s book in tomorrow’s newsletter ahead of the interview. I’ll remind you of the links then, too, of course!

Tough work (but good work)

Here we are, right smack in the midst of the Great Resignation, with people in all lines of work considering whether it's really worth it to them to continue with the paths they're on. 

Then, from out of almost nowhere, comes a new health study suggesting you might want to think twice about ditching your job.

In short, if your work is challenging, stimulating, demanding, and involves high levels of responsibility, the mental workouts you give your brain each day may help safeguard you against what is probably the medical condition most feared as people grow older: dementia.

Writing in The BMJ, the peer-reviewed journal of the British Medical Association, lead author Mika Kivimäki, a professor at University College London's Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, along with his colleagues concluded two fascinating things:

  • First, people whose jobs are highly mentally stimulating wind up with a lower risk of dementia in their later years than those doing less stimulating work.

  • Perhaps even more important, there's support for the idea that the nature of the work might help contribute to the lower rate of dementia, rather than simply reflecting a correlative relationship.

Let's go to the methodology. This was actually a study of studies, meaning that the researchers looked at analyses involving more than 100,000 participants over a 17-year period, tracking the types of work that each person did and their likelihood of being diagnosed with dementia later in life:

[The study] suggests that people with cognitively stimulating jobs have a lower risk of dementia in old age than those with nonstimulating jobs.

A possible mechanism for this association is the finding that cognitive stimulation is associated with lower levels of plasma proteins that might inhibit axonogenesis and synaptogenesis and increase dementia risk in old age.

What that means in practical terms is that having a job that requires you to use your brain constantly under the right kinds of conditions can lead to a lower likelihood of brain difficulties later in life.

What are the right kinds of conditions? The researchers listed two main factors:

  • Cognitive stimulation, which basically involves demanding tasks and requirements

  • High "job decision latitude," also characterized as "job control"

Less demanding jobs with less control were linked to a higher degree of dementia.

This is a pretty accessible study for nonscientists, so I do recommend simply checking it out. Also, it's not behind a paywall (at least it wasn’t for me), which is a bonus. 

But in terms of workplace and career guidance, what are the takeaways?

First, it's an argument in favor of finding and keeping the most challenging job you can—obviously, "challenging" in a positive sense of the word. 

This isn't an argument for sticking with a position where you work for a toxic employer or have to deal with a difficult commute. And it’s not a reason to stay in a role where you’re overwhelmed every day and have impossible-to-achieve goals or tasks.

Rather, it's about never-ending growth, always seeking more responsibility, and looking for the kind of work that encourages you to learn and do new things.

(It's the difference between being paid to do Sudoku puzzles and getting paid to count 10,000 toothpicks every day.)

Next, it's an argument in favor of continuing to work—perhaps even giving up the notion of traditional retirement. 

Again, nobody is saying to tough it out in a role that doesn't hold your attention or challenge you in a positive way. But given the sheer degree to which so much of our society seems to view working life as a vehicle designed simply to get you to retirement, maybe this kind of research suggests there's another, healthier path.

Worth noting: The researchers differentiated work-related cognitive stimulation from non-work-related cognitive stimulation, and found that work-related stimulation is likely far more beneficial.

So, perhaps forget the notion that people can look forward to early retirement, living lives of leisure, and engaging part-time in activities that produce the same cognitively protective results. This study, at least, suggests that won't work.

The theory as to why is fairly straightforward: 

Work-related cognitive stimulation amounts to tens of thousands of hours, while non-work-related cognitive stimulation amounts to less total time in most cases, and also doesn't involve the same risks associated with not putting in the required effort. In other words, you get less stimulation and it’s easier to skip your daily French lesson in favor of watching TV.

Maybe that's too much to absorb; maybe it's too limited to make big career decisions on. And, of course, you have to make your own choices. 

But if you're wondering whether a challenging job that demands your full attention is the right thing for you…well, at least now you have another factor to consider.

Call for comments: Does the underlying idea of the study make sense to you? What do you think: Work forever and forget about retirement? Is it even “work” if you love what you do? Let us know in the comments.

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7 other things worth your time

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Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Pixabay, again. I originally wrote about this study on Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.