Research Shows: People Over 40 Shouldn’t Work More Than 3 Days A Week

If as you age you’ve begun noticing that you can’t focus or remember facts quite the way you used to, it just might be work that you can blame for that decline.

According to a recent study from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, working up to 30 hours per week is good for cognitive function later in life (which they defined as age 40 or greater). Any additional hours of work beyond that point, though? Can lead to overload and performance decline.

In the same findings, the research team pointed out that the greatest decline was among people who worked 55 hours per week or more, as they showed signs of cognitive impairment greater than any other group, including those who were without a job or had retired.

This wasn’t some small-scale study, either: The research included 6500 adults (3500 female and 3000 male), age forty or greater. In addition to monitoring work performance, the study also regularly tested cognitive function in the participants.

That cognitive function was measured via a test known as the Household Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia survey, and did so by tracking how well they were able to read aloud, match letters and numbers, and recite lists.

The test, originally designed by Professor Colin McKenzie of the University of Melbourne, is designed to test both knowing and thinking factors; whereas reading aloud tests knowing elements, thinking elements were tested via memory tests and reasoning tests, both abstract and concrete.

The study authors note that while some intellectual stimulation helps retain cognitive function as we age, including crosswords, Sudoku, and other puzzles, excessive stimulation (such as working too much) can have the opposite effect.

As McKenzie has noted, this has real world consequences, especially as many countries have in recent years raised retirement ages, which forces people to work longer before being able to claim benefits, often in jobs they’re no longer suited for as they do experience cognitive decline—cognitive decline which, ironically enough, may in fact be hastened by their work hours.

As a result, McKenzie says, the key may be finding ways to reduce working hours in middle and older age, which helps preserve brain function without impairing it. The problem, unfortunately, is that few people can afford to reduce their hours in such a way.

Additionally, it remains yet unclear as to whether the type of work determines how cognitive decline results from working more than thirty hours each week, as the Hilda test does not differentiate between different types of work.

As McKenzie notes, “It’s very difficult to identify the causal effects of the type of work on cognitive functions. People may be selected into certain occupations according to their cognitive abilities.”  Still, it seems reasonable to assume that higher stress jobs, especially those that demand long hours, may be more damaging to cognitive function—even if those individuals may have arrived in their fields at least partially because of higher cognitive function in the first place.

As most of us can’t afford to cut our hours back at age 40, we can still take steps to take care of our mental health, including incorporating regular down time and vacations.

As McKenzie notes, “Working full time – over 40 hours a week –  is still better than no work in terms of maintaining cognitive function, but it is not maximizing the potential effects of work.”


*This content was inspired by an amazing article that can be found here.

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