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Editorial: Work and Brain Health Across the Lifespan
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Objectives: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, major changes to how, or even whether, we work have occurred. This study examines associations of changing COVID-19-related employment conditions with physical activity and sedentary behavior. Methods: Data from 2,303 US adults in employment prior to COVID-19 were collected April 3rd-7th, 2020. Participants reported whether their employment remained unchanged, they were working from home (WFH) when they had not been before, or they lost their job due to the pandemic. Validated questionnaires assessed physical activity, sitting time, and screen time. Linear regression quantified associations of COVID-19-related employment changes with physical activity, sitting time, and screen time, controlling for age, sex, race, BMI, smoking status, marital status, chronic conditions, household location, public health restrictions, and recalled physical activity, sitting time, and screen time prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Results: Compared to those whose employment remained unchanged, participants whose employment changed (either WFH or lost their job) due to COVID-19 reported higher sitting time (WFH: g = 0.153, 95% CI = 0.095-0.210; lost job: g = 0.212, 0.113-0.311) and screen time (WFH: g = 0.158, 0.104-0.212; lost job: g = 0.193, 0.102-0.285). There were no significant group differences for physical activity (WFH: g = -0.030, -0.101 to 0.042; lost job: g=-0.070, -0.178 to 0.037). Conclusion: COVID-19 related employment changes were associated with greater sitting and screen time. As sedentary time is consistently negatively associated with current and future health and wellbeing, increased sedentary time due to employment changes is a public health concern.
Occupational activity represents a large percentage of people’s daily activity and thus likely is as impactful for people’s general and cognitive health as other lifestyle components such as leisure activity, sleep, diet, and exercise. Different occupations, however, require different skills, abilities, activities, credentials, work styles, etc., constituting a rich multidimensional formative exposure with likely consequences for brain development over the lifespan. In the current study, we were interested in how different occupations with their different attributes relate to five variables: structural brain health, duration of early-life education, gender, IQ, and age, although the main focus was the relationship to brain health. To this end, we used the Occupation Information Network (O∗NET), which provides quantification of occupations along 246 items. Occupational patterns with different loadings for these 246 items were derived from 277 community-dwelling adults, ranging in age from 40 to 80, based upon the five subject measures. We found significant patterns underlying four of our variables of interest, with gender and education predictably showing the most numerous and strongest associations, while brain health and intelligence showed weaker associations, and age did not manifest any associations. For the occupational pattern associated with brain health, we found mainly positive associations on items pertaining to rigorous problem-solving, leadership, responsibility, and information processing. We emphasize that the findings are correlational and cannot establish causation. Future extensions of this work will assess the influence of occupation on future cognitive brain status and cognitive performance.
The positive association between midlife occupational complexity and cognitive functioning in older age is well documented. Much less is known about the underlying neural mechanisms and whether occupational stress may accelerate neurocognitive aging. According to the BOSS model (Brain aging: Occupational Stimulation and Stress), occupational exposures may serve as long-term protective and risk factors that influence the rate and extent of neurocognitive decline in aging (Burzynska, Jiao & Ganster 2018). We present findings from three independent samples linking different occupational exposures (e.g. work physical demands, innovation, autonomy, employer control) with brain volume in cognitively healthy older adults. We discuss the findings in the context of cognitive reserve and brain maintenance. Our findings suggest that occupational activities need to be acknowledged as an important factor in lifespan cognitive and brain development and warrant further research, with a possible outcome of workplace interventions aimed at optimizing neurocognitive aging.
Neuroimaging studies of the aging brain provide support that the strongest predictor of preserved memory and cognition in older age is brain maintenance, or relative lack of brain pathology. Evidence for brain maintenance comes from different levels of examination, but up to now relatively few studies have used a longitudinal design. Examining factors that promote brain maintenance in aging is a critical task for the future and may be combined with the use of new techniques for multimodal imaging.
There are many reports of relations between age and cognitive variables and of relations between age and variables representing different aspects of brain structure and a few reports of relations between brain structure variables and cognitive variables. These findings have sometimes led to inferences that the age-related brain changes cause the age-related cognitive changes. Although this conclusion may well be true, it is widely recognized that simple correlations are not sufficient to warrant causal conclusions, and other types of correlational information, such as mediation and correlations between longitudinal brain changes and longitudinal cognitive changes, also have limitations with respect to causal inferences. These issues are discussed, and the existing results on relations of regional volume, white matter hyperintensities, and diffusion tensor imaging measures of white matter integrity to age and to measures of cognitive functioning are reviewed. It is concluded that at the current time the evidence that these aspects of brain structure are neuroanatomical substrates of age-related cognitive decline is weak. The final section contains several suggestions concerning measurement and methodology that may lead to stronger conclusions in the future.
Several concepts, which in the aggregate get might be used to account for "resilience" against age- and disease-related changes, have been the subject of much research. These include brain reserve, cognitive reserve, and brain maintenance. However, different investigators have use these terms in different ways, and there has never been an attempt to arrive at consensus on the definition of these concepts. Furthermore, there has been confusion regarding the measurement of these constructs and the appropriate ways to apply them to research. Therefore the reserve, resilience, and protective factors professional interest area, established under the auspices of the Alzheimer's Association, established a whitepaper workgroup to develop consensus definitions for cognitive reserve, brain reserve, and brain maintenance. The workgroup also evaluated measures that have been used to implement these concepts in research settings and developed guidelines for research that explores or utilizes these concepts. The workgroup hopes that this whitepaper will form a reference point for researchers in this area and facilitate research by supplying a common language.
The pandemic has exposed the fallacy of the “ideal worker
Williams, J. C. (2020). The pandemic has exposed the fallacy of the "ideal worker." Harvard Business Review. Available online at: https://hbr.org/2020/ 05/the-pandemic-has-exposed-the-fallacy-of-the-ideal-worker (accessed May 11, 2020).