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Dr. Zorba Paster: Work conditions may affect your memory and brain function later

Dr. Zorba Paster

We all know that our job affects our life. If we like what we do, life is better. If we have control over our job, our satisfaction goes up.

As a teen I worked in my uncle’s gumball factory, lifting heavy boxes of gum, and gumball machines that we shipped all over the country. It was dull, boring work and hard for me because I was a shrimp compared to the other guys in the factory – they were football players while I tinkered with computers.

One day my uncle told me I could move in with the “girls” in the front office if I learned how to type. An office surrounded by high school and college girls and all I had to do is master the keyboard. BINGO. I hit the jackpot. Eighty words a minute later and I was in an air-conditioned office, out of the dusty and smelly warehouse.

New research shows that change in work environment may have influenced how my brain works today, and that your work conditions and environment can affect your memory and function later in life.

There are broadly two types of brain activity: memory and executive function, the ability to make a decision. As we get older our ability to remember numbers, such as telephone numbers, decreases. We may not like it but it’s normal aging.

But the ability to make a decision usually improves with age because we’ve had more experience and remember our bad decisions.

I saw an electrical engineer patient of mine the other day – very high functioning, writes research papers, testifies before Congress on electrical regulations, has staff working for him at his office. He was worried that his brain was going because he couldn’t remember all the ingredients he used in his paella recipe. He had to look at his notes. Back in the day he just did it from memory. He thought this was dementia. Not!

Researchers out of Florida State University have been following 5,000 adults aged 30 to 80 looking at their work conditions, where they worked and if they’re still active, where they’re working now and connecting this to cognitive function. Analyzing their workplace activities and the physical environment they were in they made two conclusions.

First off: if you have to make decisions at work – that is, not work at a mindless job – you were more likely to retain your brain when you were old.

But the other finding, also important, was a “clean” environment made a difference too. If you were in a shop or factory, which was not “clean,” you were more likely to “lose your mind.” The physical environment was a factor just like your mental environment. And it wasn’t only dust and chemicals but also mold on the walls and, now get this, too much noise.

My spin: Clean it up. If you work in a dirty environment you should figure out how you might make it cleaner. The cleaner it is today may mean you’ll be clearer tomorrow.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, professor at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and host of the public radio program “ZorbaPaster on Your Health,” which airs at noon Wednesdays on 91.1 FM, and noon Sundays on 91.9 FM. His column appears twice a month in The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at askzorba@ doctorzorba.com.

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