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Mild cognitive impairment, dementia risk associated with physical work

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People who work in physically demanding jobs such as agriculture may be at greater risk of cognitive impairment. Image author. Thomas Barwick/Getty Images.
  • People with consistently high levels of occupational physical activity are more likely to develop dementia or mild cognitive impairment, a new study says.
  • The authors of the study call for the development of cognitively protective strategies for people in such jobs.
  • People who work in jobs with a moderate amount of physical activity are at greater risk of mild cognitive impairment. This can often lead to dementia.

If your job involves a high level of physical activity, you may be at increased risk of dementia gold mild cognitive impairment (MCI)suggests a new study, published in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe.

People with high levels of occupational physical activity had a 15.5% risk of dementia, compared with a 9% risk for people whose jobs involved low levels of physical activity, the study said.

The study also found that people whose jobs required moderate levels of occupational physical activity were at greater risk of mild cognitive impairment, but not dementia per se.

The study is an analysis of data from the fourth wave, 2017-2019, of the HUNT4 70+ study, one of the largest collections of dementia data. It includes 7,005 people living in Trøndelag County, Norway, aged 33 to 65 years. Of the research participants, 49.8% were women.

The authors define occupational physical activity as “(p)erforming physical activities that require significant use of arms and legs and movement of the whole body, such as climbing, lifting, balancing, walking, bending, and handling materials.”

They rated professional physical activity on a scale of one to five, with one representing the least amount of such activity and five the most.

Some of the most common occupations among study participants who were exposed to intense physical activity in their roles were retail, nursing and agriculture.

Corresponding author of the study, Dr. Vegard Skirbekkhe explained for Medical news today that the purpose of the study was to better understand the risks for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias over the life course.

“Understanding (Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias) risks in a life course perspective may be important to both the general public and health care providers. “The causes of late-life dementia could probably be found earlier in life,” said Dr. Skirbekk.

Dr. Roseanne Freak-PoliA life-cycle epidemiologist and senior research fellow at Monash University in Australia, who was not involved in the research, supported the study’s life-cycle approach, saying it provides “a more comprehensive understanding of how work experiences affect cognitive health.”

As it is, she noted, “we know that the physical activity intensity of our jobs is likely to decrease as we age, so looking across the lifespan provides a better understanding than measuring at just one time point.”

Brain health coach Ryan Glattdirector of the FitBrain program at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute, who was also not involved in the research, said he was most interested in the study’s findings regarding the link between mid-occupational physical activity and MCI.

As for why people with moderate occupational activity are more likely to experience MCI, Dr. Skirbekk said, “We believe it’s largely a matter of degree; the greater the physical exertion, the greater the risks later in life.”

“I don’t think this article is sensitive enough to determine whether it’s MCI or dementia,” Glatt noted. “This is a very large research. It’s just some kind of signal.”

The researchers took into account factors related to education, income, marital status, health and lifestyle in their analysis.

“I think this could really signal a relationship between what kinds of people and what sociodemographic status are doing these kinds of jobs,” Glatt told us.

The authors themselves write that “the association between occupational (physical activity) and cognitive impairment in late life could be confounded by differences in socioeconomic status.”

In addition, Glatt asked, “Is it possible that more physically demanding jobs, say construction, can be more stressful? Yes, absolutely. Is there a likelihood of exposure to certain environmental toxins in certain jobs that may involve physical activity?”

“I don’t think I could just walk up to somebody and say, ‘Hey, I think you should get an office job because this job is going to give you dementia,'” Glatt said.

So what can a person with a physically demanding job do to protect their cognitive health?

dr. Skirbekk said: “We believe that when someone has autonomy and can take breaks, as well as a sense of control over their physical demands, they can reduce risks.”

Meanwhile, Dr Skirbekk added, following standard advice for dementia risk factors makes sense: “Avoid smoking, excessive alcohol intake, social isolation, (prevent or treat) high (blood pressure), diabetes, depression, (avoid) physical inactivity, use hearing aids in case of hearing loss and reduce exposure to polluted air.”

Glatt suggested providing structured exercise in their free time, even if their job is physically demanding. He recommended aerobic exercises, strength exercises and neural motor exercises.

Sleep, he said, is also key to cognitive health: “Many people have theorized and researched that when individuals are more physically and cognitively active, it increases hunger and desire for sleep.”

It is also the case, he said, that this study is part of larger conversations that we need to have. “Occupational risks are really interesting, environmental exposures are interesting, work stresses are interesting: the relationship between what’s good about work and what’s bad about it.”

He called for “more occupational research on what types of jobs contribute to longevity as well as health outcomes”.

“And I think if we can better understand the relationships between those factors — like physical activity and stress and cognitive activity — I hope we can understand another factor of what might contribute to someone’s brain health.”

– Ryan Glatt

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