Hard Work Increases Dementia Risk

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
July 20, 2021

Although physical exercise cuts the chance of dementia, hard labor may do the opposite. If you have a blue-collar job, you have a 55 percent higher risk of developing dementia.

Blue-collar jobs are hard work. We know people hurt their backs and pull muscles, sometimes standing for hours or lifting heavy objects many times in a day. It now appears that physical laborers are also hurting their brains.

A study from the University of Copenhagen, based on data from 4,721 Danish men, suggests that physical workers have a 55 percent higher risk of developing dementia than people who have less strenuous work, typically in an office. Scientists adjusted the figures for factors like smoking, blood pressure, weight, drinking, and exercise. Labor still stood out as linked to dementia.


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Why might that be? The authors say that hard physical work may have a bad effect on circulation and the blood supply to the brain, triggering high blood pressure, blood clots, heat cramps, and heart failure. How you use your body matters; employers may need to change how workers perform tasks. Manual laborers also may need to lose weight and exercise more, including strength training.

A different group of researchers, at the University of Cambridge, gave 8,500 men and women tests of their memory, reading skills, and attention. Manual workers were almost three times more likely to do badly on these thinking tests than people with an inactive office job, regardless of how much education the office workers had. Using their mind for their work may have helped them stay sharp, the authors said.

Which jobs are most physically demanding?

In the United States, landscape and groundskeeping work, including tree-trimming, are among the most back-breaking jobs. Brick and stone mason workers also have it rough.

Other professions that put stress on your body:

  • Roofers
  • Baggage porters and bellhops
  • Installation workers
  • Prison workers
  • Construction carpenters
  • City and forest firefighters
  • Drywall workers
  • Laborers in plant nurseries
  • People who cut down trees
  • Iron workers
  • Cement masons
  • Hospital and nursing home orderlies
  • Fitness instructors

Eventually, most blue-collar workers can’t keep working as they age. Their employers may try to push them out the door. But if you’re still in your 50s or 60s, you might not be ready to stay at home — or can’t afford to. The earlier you stop working, the smaller your pension, or you might not get paid at all.

What you can do

If your day is tiring, you may easily think you just need to rest afterwards. But you may also need to push yourself. After standing all day, for example, you may need to walk or run, stretch, and practice core-strengthing exercises to protect your back. Don’t wait for retirement: the brain changes tend to begin while you’re working, the Danish researchers say.

To protect yourself against dementia, aim each week for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity — for instance, brisk walking, riding a bike, or pushing a lawnmower. Jogging, fast swimming, or riding a bike uphill counts as vigorous activity — 75 minutes each week will keep you in shape.

Build in some muscle-building exercise by, say, digging in your garden, taking a Pilates class, or doing push-ups and pull-ups.

Eat vegetables and fruit daily, eat protein at least twice a week, and cut back on sugar. Don’t smoke. Cut back on alcohol.

Exercise your brain: pick up a demanding book, take a course, learn a new language, do puzzles, play poker, volunteer, and stay social. It may be hard to fit in hobbies if your job is wearing you down, but you may feel energized once you get started.

If you’re worn out but need to keep working, think about where else you can be useful. More than 30 percent of U.S. men ages 65 to 69 with a high school degree were working in 2015, up from about 27 percent in 1995. Switch to a less physically demanding job that builds on your experience. For example, older electricians often go to trade schools to earn a certificate, qualifying them to be estimators on electrical projects. Could you work for your union? Can you develop a hobby into a small business?


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July 20, 2021

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN