TIME Research

This Is How You Can Lose Weight Using Just Your Mind

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Tom Grill—Blend Images/Getty Images

It’s simple — just remember what you’ve already eaten and you feel less hungry

People may be able to control their hunger pangs (to an extent) if they try to remember the last food they’ve eaten, a psychologist has found.

Eric Robinson says psychological factors can impact how much you eat and believes appetite is formed in the mind as much as it is in the stomach, the BBC reports.

The University of Liverpool scientist studied people who suffer from anterograde amnesia and found that they still have a sensory memory of the food they have eaten, even though they have no conscious memory of it.

Similarly, those who were made to mediate on the food they’ve already eaten throughout the day felt less of a need to consume more.

Read more at the BBC.

TIME Aging

What You Should Know About Early-Onset Alzheimer’s

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The condition affects about 200,000 people in the United States

Julianne Moore won a Golden Globe Sunday for her portrayal of an early-onset Alzheimer’s patient in the film Still Alice. Moore’s character, Alice Howland, is just 50 when she is diagnosed, and the movie follows her and her family’s struggle to cope as her memory and mental state decline.

But what is early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and who is at risk? Here’s what you should know about the condition that affects about 200,000 people in the United States.

HEALTH.COM: 25 Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

Not just for old people

Alzheimer’s disease is usually thought of as something senior citizens get. While that is often true, it’s not always the case: Up to 5% of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are under age 65—usually in their 40s or 50s—and are considered to have an “early onset” or “younger onset” of the disease.

Symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s are no different than symptoms of more traditional cases, says Mary Sano, PhD, professor of psychiatry and director of Alzheimer’s disease research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in the Bronx, whom Moore consulted during her research for Still Alice. But because the condition is so rare in adults under 65, the signs may not be recognized as quickly by patients themselves, or by those around them.

“By the time people ask for help, something strange has probably been going on for at least six months,” says Sano. “And often, it’s family members and close friends who can provide a point of view that a change has occurred, which can allow that person to realize something is wrong.”

HEALTH.COM: 7 Ways to Protect Your Memory

Because early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is so uncommon, diagnosis may also require testing above and beyond what a senior citizen might undergo. “We want to demonstrate that what’s really present is a cognitive problem and not a psychological or physical problem,” says Sano. “For a younger person, we’ll do a more rigorous workup, including imaging and other tests, because we want to make sure we get this right.”

Early-onset disease has a strong genetic component, so family history—if the patient knows enough about it—can be a big part of a person’s diagnosis, as well. A blood test can determine whether someone has a gene mutation that puts them at higher risk for familial Alzheimer’s, but cannot prove whether they have (or will get) the disease.

What it’s like—and what it’s not

First things first: Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is uncommon, and it’s not responsible for most cases of middle-aged forgetfulness—like not being able to remember where you put your keys, or the name of someone you met at a cocktail party last night, for example.

Episodes like these, says Sano, are most likely due to preoccupation or periods of temporary stress, and usually aren’t anything to worry about.

When you should be concerned, she says, is when problems with your memory begin to interfere with your ability to do the things that are most important to you, or when you start to have difficulty completing common, everyday tasks. “It’s the persistence and the erratic nature of the symptoms that’s the real warning sign.”

In fact, Sano says, people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease often subconsciously modify or adapt their routines to the point where they don’t even notice specific red-flag incidents. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, warning signs may include the regular use of memory devices, relying on friends and family to do things you used to handle yourself, or withdrawal from work or social activities.

HEALTH.COM: 12 Unexpected Things That Mess With Your Memory

Symptoms are different for everyone, but one thing to watch for is difficulty remembering and retaining new information, says Sano. “Not being able to learn your new computer password, or to learn a new activity or take on a new project—those are usually the challenges at the earliest stages of the disease,” she says.

As the disease progresses, however, all forms of memory are affected. In Still Alice, Moore’s character becomes concerned when she—a linguistics who is known for her mastery of speech—loses her train of thought during a presentation and cannot think of the words to continue. In other scenes throughout the movie, she gets disoriented while out for a jog, forgets her daughter’s name, and, yes, misplaces her keys.

As the movie shows, early-onset Alzheimer’s can be especially devastating because people in their 40s and 50s are often still working and caring for children. “They’re at risk for having more functional loss, and having their life and their family’s lives affected much more than someone who’s several decades older,” says Sano. “And so the management of the disease really requires a lot of thoughtfulness and a lot of extra service.”

Treatment and hope

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, no matter what age onset occurs. But there are drugs that can slow its progression, and there are ways in which Alzheimer’s patients and their families can better manage living with the disease.

Staying physically, socially, and mental active can also provide protection against the disease and may help people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease maintain their cognition longer, says Sano. Specifically, research has shown that doing crossword puzzles and speaking a second language may help slow declines in thinking and memory.

In addition, there are many opportunities for Alzheimer’s patients to take part in ongoing research, says Sano, which may lead the way to better treatment options. She recommends talking to your doctor or visiting the National Institutes of Health’s Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center online for information about clinical trials happening near you.

Sano hasn’t seen Moore’s performance in Still Alice (the movie will be officially released on Friday), but she’s glad the actress did her due diligence when preparing for the part. “When we worked with her, we were impressed with her awareness of the impact of the disease—not only on the individuals, but on the people around them as well,” she says.

She’s also grateful for the opportunity the film provides to show people another side to Alzheimer’s disease. “Many people don’t know what this is and so they don’t seek advice when they see victims,” she says. “It’s critically important to allow people to find out about the disease, and raise awareness about something they need to pay attention to—something they may even be living through.”

HEALTH.COM: 15 Diseases Doctors Misdiagnose

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Research

Yes, Closing Your Eyes Really Does Help You Recall Things Better

It works for both visual and audio memories

A new study suggests that closing one’s eyes actually does help an individual recall things in more accurate detail.

According to research findings published in the journal Legal and Criminological Psychology, subjects who participated in a recent study at the U.K.’s University of Surrey had more accurate recollections of visual and audio memories when they closed their eyes during testing.

The survey also found that individuals who had better rapport with their interviewers scored higher on tests, reports the BBC.

Closing one’s eyes will “help people visualize the details of the event they are trying to remember,” lead researcher Robert Nash told the BBC. He added that it could “help focus on audio information, too.”

[BBC]

TIME Gadgets

Samsung Unveils Crazy-Small Drive That Gives You 1TB of Storage

Samsung

And reportedly can rip a movie in 8 seconds flat

Samsung unveiled the mighty mouse of storage devices at its Consumer Electronics Show presentation on Monday.

The company says its Portable SSD T1 storage device, which is roughly the size of a business card and can store up to a terabyte of data, can transfer content from any device at roughly four times the rate of the average external drive. A 3MB movie, for instance, can rip to the drive in 8 seconds.

It also comes at a whopping price: a full terabyte of storage will set you back $599, but you can spend a more budget-friendly $179 for 250 GB.

TIME Food & Drink

One Good Reason to Eat Chocolate Today

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Natalia Campbell of NC Photography—Getty Images

Chocolate-holics, rejoice! New research suggests chocolate may help boost your memory

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

As if we needed one more reason to love chocolate, now a new study shows it may hold a bonus health benefit: a memory boost. A new study published in Nature suggests that a compound found in the treat could actually mitigate age-related memory loss.

Researchers at Columbia University looked at the brains of 37 50- to 69-year-olds. Half of the participants received a chocolaty, high-flavanol​ (compounds from cocoa) drink every day for three months. The other half drank a similar mix containing far fewer flavanols. Results showed that those drinking the high-flavanol mix exhibited improvements on memory tests and higher activity in the dentate gyrus, a part of the hippocampus linked with memory. In other words, we may be able to use chocolate to help fight normal, age-related memory loss.

(MORE: 5 Surprising Ways to Boost Your Memory)

This isn’t the first time chocolate has been linked to our health. Dark chocolate may help reduce inflammation, and it houses antioxidants, which are thought to help the body’s cells resist damage. It has also been linked to improved mood, heart disease prevention, and protection of the skin from UV rays.

(MORE: 6 Ways to Have Healthy Holidays)

Does that mean these findings are an RX to OD on chocolate? Not so fast. While the compounds found in cocoa may have some powerful memory magic, according to this newest research, a sugar binge isn’t the answer: You’d have to eat about 300 grams of dark chocolate per day, according to The New York Times. A typical dark chocolate bar contains about 24g of sugar and a whopping 43g of fat. Plus, you’d have to eat about three of those daily to obtain the same amount of flavanols as the study’s participants. As with most things, chocolate is best enjoyed in moderation.

(MORE: How to Keep Things in Moderation)

TIME health

5 Surprising Ways to Boost Your Memory

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rubberball—Getty Images

Everything from the right snack foods to incorrect answers might play a role in keeping you sharp

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

1. Nibble on chocolate: Just this week, we learned that eating chocolate might lessen age-related memory loss. Columbia University researchers studied almost 40 adults between 50 and 69 years old, and found that those who drank a high-flavanol cocoa mix every day for three months performed better on memory tests and had higher activity in the area of the brain linked with memory.

2. Make a mistake: A recent University of Toronto study found that memories of both young and older adults might benefit from errors. When given memory tests, participants were better at remembering the previous correct answer if they had first gotten it wrong. Random guessing, however, was not beneficial. Scientists only saw memory improvements when participants made educated guesses, or previous errors were of the “close-but-no-cigar” category.

3. Sip some green tea: Aside from being the perfect partner to a good book, this soothing drink may also have an effect on working memory. A 2014 study from University Hospital of Basel found that male volunteers who drank green tea extract performed better on memory tasks.

(MORE: How to Keep Things in Moderation)

4. Break a sweat: Vancouver scientists looked at older women with mild cognitive impairment who were at risk for dementia, and found that they seriously benefitted from a simple six-month exercise program. Out of 86 women studied, those selected to undergo the exercise program showed significantimprovement in verbal and spatial memory—the ability to remember words, and the ability to remember where objects were placed.

If that’s not enough reason to hit the gym, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that an intense 20-minute workout can boost long-term memory by as much as 10 percent in young adults.

5. Have a drink: No, this isn’t permission to start a bar tab, but researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that light alcohol consumption could be linked to better episodic memory—the memory of events. They studied adults over age 60 with no indication of dementia, and saw that moderate drinking was associated with larger hippocampal brain volume—the area of the brain responsible for the consolidation of short- and long-term memory.

(MORE: 6 Ways to Have Healthy Holidays)

TIME

This Is the Easiest Productivity Hack in the History of Work

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Getty Images

You can literally do this in one second

To learn better, hit control-s and “outsource” your remembering.

In a new study, scientists found that people tackling a mental challenge on a computer did a better job if they saved the previous work they had been doing beforehand.

“Saving one file before studying a new file significantly improved memory for the contents of the new file,” the authors write. “Saving has the potential to significantly influence how people learn and remember.”

In a series of experiments, participants were instructed to study two PDF files and remember words it contained. Subjects did a better job remembering material from the second file if they successfully saved the first file before proceeding onto the second one.

“Saving allows us to maintain access to more data and experiences than would be possible otherwise,” says says Benjamin Storm, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and lead author of the study. “Memory now works in concert with technology, and by saving information we are able to keep that information from interfering with the learning of something new.”

The act of saving something digitally gives us a sense of reassurance that the information is there when we need it, which psychologically frees up our mind and allows us to focus on the next batch of information we need to learn. Essentially, we’re reallocating our mental resources.

“To maximize memory and productivity we need to be able to set stuff aside and move on to other matters,” Storm says.

In earlier research, he found that thinking of new things makes it harder to remember old thoughts. If you’re worrying if or when you’ll need to refer to earlier information in the future, hitting the “save” button or shortcut is a quick, easy and low-risk way way to virtually hang onto that information without forcing it to occupy the forefront of your mind.

“Saving may protect us from this type of thinking-induced forgetting by allowing us to think of new ideas while keeping our old ideas safely saved and out of the way,” Storm says.

Storm points out that his experiments just looked at what happens when someone saves a file before closing it and starting a new task, but he says it’s not a bad idea to save your work on a regular basis anyway.

When new information crowds out older thoughts, people can even forget their own ideas, Storm says. “Save or write down good ideas as soon as you get them,” he advises. “Even if you think you’re going to remember them, chances are that you won’t, especially if you continue to try to think of new ideas.”

TIME

Why Rape and Trauma Survivors Have Fragmented and Incomplete Memories

University Of Virginia Fraternity At Center Of Disputed Rolling Stone Magazine Story On Alleged Gang Rape Incident
The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house is seen on the University of Virginia campus on December 6, 2014 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jay Paul—Getty Images

James Hopper, Ph.D., trains investigators, prosecutors, judges and military commanders on the neurobiology of sexual assault. David Lisak, Ph.D., is a forensic consultant, researcher, national trainer and the board president of 1in6.

In the midst of assault, the brain's fear circuitry takes over while other key parts are impaired or even effectively shut down. This is the brain reacting to a life-threatening situation just the way it is supposed to

A door opens and a police officer is suddenly staring at the wrong end of a gun. In a split second, his brain is hyper-focused on that gun. It is very likely that he will not recall any of the details that were irrelevant to his immediate survival: Did the shooter have a moustache? What color was the shooter’s hair? What was the shooter wearing?

The officer’s reaction is not a result of poor training. It’s his brain reacting to a life-threatening situation just the way it is supposed to—just the way the brain of a rape victim reacts to an assault. In the aftermath, the officer may be unable to recall many important details. He may be uncertain about many. He may be confused about many. He may recall some details inaccurately. Simultaneously, he will recall certain details – the things his brain focused on – with extraordinary accuracy. He may well never forget them. All of this, too, is the human brain working the way it was designed to work.

Last week, Rolling Stone issued a note about their story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia after reports surfaced of discrepancies in the victim’s accounting. We cannot comment on that particular and clearly complex case without knowing the facts. But in our training of police investigators, prosecutors, judges, university administrators and military commanders, we’ve found that it’s helpful to share what’s known about how traumatic experiences affect the functioning of three key brain regions.

First, let’s consider the prefrontal cortex. This part of our brain is responsible for “executive functions,” including focusing attention where we choose, rational thought processes and inhibiting impulses. You are using your prefrontal cortex right now to read this article and absorb what we’ve written, rather than getting distracted by other thoughts in your head or things going on around you. But in states of high stress, fear or terror like combat and sexual assault, the prefrontal cortex is impaired – sometimes even effectively shut down – by a surge of stress chemicals. Most of us have probably had the experience of being suddenly confronted by an emergency, one that demands some kind of clear thinking, and finding that precisely when we need our brain to work at its best, it seems to become bogged down and unresponsive. When the executive center of the our brain goes offline, we are less able to willfully control what we pay attention to, less able to make sense of what we are experiencing, and therefore less able to recall our experience in an orderly way.

Inevitably, at some point during a traumatic experience, fear kicks in. When it does, it is no longer the prefrontal cortex running the show, but the brain’s fear circuitry – especially the amygdala. Once the fear circuitry takes over, it – not the prefrontal cortex – controls where attention goes. It could be the sound of incoming mortars or the cold facial expression of a predatory rapist or the grip of his hand on one’s neck. Or, the fear circuitry can direct attention away from the horrible sensations of sexual assault by focusing attention on otherwise meaningless details. Either way, what gets attention tends to be fragmentary sensations, not the many different elements of the unfolding assault. And what gets attention is what is most likely to get encoded into memory.

The brain’s fear circuitry also alters the functioning of a third key brain area, the hippocampus. The hippocampus encodes experiences into short-term memory and can store them as long-term memories. Fear impairs the ability of the hippocampus to encode and store “contextual information,” like the layout of the room where the rape happened. Fear also impairs its ability to encode time sequencing information, like whether the perpetrator ripped off a shirt before or after saying “you want this.”

Our understanding of the altered functioning of the brain in traumatic situations is founded on decades of research, and as that research continues, it is giving us a more nuanced view of the human brain “on trauma.” Recent studies suggest that the hippocampus goes into a super-encoding state briefly after the fear kicks in. Victims may remember in exquisite detail what was happening just before and after they realized they were being attacked, including context and the sequence of events. However, they are likely to have very fragmented and incomplete memories for much of what happens after that.

These advances in our understanding of the impact of trauma on the brain have enormous implications for the criminal justice system. It is not reasonable to expect a trauma survivor – whether a rape victim, a police officer or a soldier – to recall traumatic events the way they would recall their wedding day. They will remember some aspects of the experience in exquisitely painful detail. Indeed, they may spend decades trying to forget them. They will remember other aspects not at all, or only in jumbled and confused fragments. Such is the nature of terrifying experiences, and it is a nature that we cannot ignore.

James Hopper, Ph.D., is an independent consultant and Instructor in Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He trains investigators, prosecutors, judges and military commanders on the neurobiology of sexual assault. David Lisak, Ph.D., is a forensic consultant, researcher, national trainer and the board president of 1in6, a non-profit that provides information and services to men who were sexually abused as children.

Read next: It’s Women Who Suffer When We Don’t Ask Questions

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

How Memory Links the Presidency, Ferguson and the Cosby Mess

Do you know me? Relax, you're not alone.
Do you know me? Relax, you're not alone.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

The human brain forgets much more than it remembers, and that has an impact on history, criminal justice and more

Here’s a difficult one, history buffs: Who was Harry Truman? I know, I know, I told you it would be tough, but think hard: Some famous general? Maybe a physicist?

If you guessed U.S. president, good for you! And if you also knew that Truman was the one who came right after Roosevelt (Franklin, that is) and right before Eisenhower, go to the head of the class.

OK, so maybe remembering Truman isn’t such a big deal. But here’s the thing: By 2040, according to a new study just published in Science, only 26% of college students will remember to include his name if they are asked to make a list of all U.S. Presidents, regardless of order.

That finding, which is less a function of historical illiteracy than of the mysterious ways the human brain works, reveals a lot about the perishability of memory. And that, in turn, has implications for contemporary dramas like the Ferguson tragedy, the Bill Cosby mess and the very underpinnings of the criminal justice system.

The Science study, conducted by a pair of psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis, was actually four studies that took place over 40 years—in 1974, 1991, 2009 and 2014. In the first three, the investigators asked groups of then-college students to list all of the presidents in the order in which they served, and also to list as many of them as they could by name regardless of where they fell in history.

In all three groups over all three eras, the results were remarkably similar. As a rule, 100% of respondents knew the president currently serving, and virtually all knew the prior one or two. Performance then fell off with each previous presidency. Roughly 75% of students in 1974 placed FDR in the right spot, for example. Fewer than 20% of Millennials—born much later—could do that. In all groups, the historical trail would go effectively cold one or two presidents before the subjects’ birth—falling into single digits.

There were exceptions. The Founding Father presidents, particularly the first three—George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—scored high in all groups. As did Abraham Lincoln and his two immediate successors, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant. As for the Tylers and Taylors and Fillmores? Forget about them—which most people did. The pattern held again in a single larger survey conducted in 2014, with a mixed-age sample group that included Boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials, all performing true to their own eras.

Almost none of this had to do with any one President’s historical relevance—apart from the Founding Fathers and Lincoln. James Polk’s enormously consequential, one-term presidency is far less recalled than, say, Jimmy Carter’s much less successful four-year stint. Instead, our memory is personal, a thing of the moment, and deeply fallible—and that means trouble.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Ferguson drama is the mix of wildly different stories eyewitnesses presented to the grand jury, with Michael Brown portrayed as anything from anger-crazed aggressor to supine victim. Some witnesses may have been led by prosecutors, some may have simply been making things up, but at least some were surely doing their best, trying to remember the details of a lethal scene as it unfolded in a few vivid seconds.

If forensic psychology has shown anything, it’s that every single expectation or bias a witness brings to an experience—to say nothing of all of the noise and press and controversy that may follow—can contaminate recall until it’s little more reliable than that of someone who wan’t there at all.

Something less deadly—if no less ugly—applies in the Bill Cosby case. In an otherwise reasonable piece in the Nov. 25 Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker cautions against a collective rush to judgment and reminds readers that under the American legal system, Cosby is not a rapist, but an alleged rapist; and his victims, similarly, are as yet only alleged victims. Fair enough; that’s what the criminal justice rules say. But then, there’s this:

“…we have formed our opinions… only on the memories of the women, most of whom say they were drugged at the time. Some of them have conceded that their recollections are foggy—which, of course they would be, after decades and under pharmaceutically induced circumstances, allegedly.”

In other words, if Cosby did drug them, then perhaps we must throw their testimony out of court because, um, Cosby drugged them. Talk about the (alleged) criminal making hay on his crime. And yet, when it comes to the science of memory, that’s an argument that could work before a judge.

Finally, too, there is the unseemly business of Ray Rice. Virtually nobody who knows what he did has forgotten it—which is what happens when you’re a massively strong athlete and you cold-cock a woman. But it was the complete elevator video actually showing the blow, as opposed to the earlier one in which Rice was seen merely dragging the unconscious body of his soon-to-be-wife out into a hotel hallway, that spelled his end—at least until his lifetime NFL ban was overturned on Nov. 28. Knowing what happened is very different from seeing what happened—and once you saw the savagery of Rice’s blow, you could never unsee it.

When it comes to presidents, the fallibility of memory can help. In the years immediately following Richard Nixon’s resignation, it was a lot harder to appreciate his manifest triumphs—the Clean Air Act, the opening to China—than it is now. George W. Bush is enjoying his own small historical rebound, with his AIDS in Africa initiative and his compassionate attempt at immigration reform looking better and better in the rear-view mirror—despite the still-recent debacles of his Presidency.

We do ourselves a disservice if we hold historical grudges against even our most flawed presidents; but we do just as much harm if we allow ourselves to forget why ill-planned land wars in countries like Iraq or cheap break-ins at places like the Watergate are so morally criminal. Forget the sequence of the Presidents if you must, but do remember their deeds.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Aging

Why Complex Jobs Protect Aging Brains Better

The more engaging your job, the sharper your thinking skills

Studies show that there are a lot of things you can do to preserve your intellect—stay social and interact with as many friends and family as you can, learn new things (especially languages), go to new places and stay physically active. If there’s any time left over, consider getting a more engaging career. There’s now evidence that what you do to make a living can also help to preserve your brain power.

Reporting in the journal Neurology, scientists at the University of Edinburgh found that the more complex a person’s job is, the more likely they are to score higher on memory tests and general cognitive skills when they reach age 70.

MORE: Cocoa May Help With Memory Loss, a New Study Finds

The team recruited about 1,000 69-year-olds who were part of the Lothian Birth Cohort, a database that included people born in the Scottish town in 1936. At age 11, the participants had taken IQ tests so the researchers could compare those scores to cognitive tests given to them at age 70.

In the study, researchers assessed their occupations by their complexity, based on how much interaction with people, data or things the job required. Complex “people” jobs, for example, include lawyer, social worker, surgeon or probation officer, compared to less socially complex jobs like factory worker, or painter. Complex “data” occupations include architect, graphic designer and musician, while less complex data jobs include construction worker, cafeteria worker or telephone operator. Finally, people working in more intricate ways with “things” would include machine workers and those who make instruments, while bank managers and surveyors might rank as having simpler interactions with things.

When the scientists compared occupations with cognitive tests at age 70, they found that people with more complex people and data jobs scored higher on memory, speed and general thinking skills than those with less involved jobs in these areas. People with more complex data-related jobs also scored much better on processing and speed skills.

MORE: 5 Secrets to Improve Learning and Memory

But when the researchers factored in the effect of the participants’ IQ at age 11—in other words, their starting intellect—they found that the influence of the jobs remained, though it shrunk a bit. “People who have higher cognitive ability to begin with are those more likely to have more complex jobs,” says Alan Gow, assistant professor of psychology at University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University and one of the study’s co-authors. “Once we account for that, the association between more complex jobs and better cognitive outcomes is reduced, but there remains a small additional benefit for our cognitive abilities from being in more complex jobs.”

In fact, he says, the strongest predictor of cognitive abilities at age 70 is intellect earlier in life. So the IQ of the participants at age 11 accounted for about 50% of the variance in test scores when they reached 70. Jobs can add to that effect. The stronger the cognitive starting point, the more brain reserve people might have as the normal processes of aging start erode some nerve connections involved in higher order thinking. Having a complex job that requires constant activation of these neural networks, and formation of new connections, can also contribute to building this reserve capacity.

Gow admits, however, that the study did not take into account how long people stuck with the jobs, so there may yet be a stronger effect of occupation on later life intellect the longer people stay with a complex job. Given the results, he and his team are eagerly following the 70-year olds to see if occupation and other factors can influence their cognitive functions. Now, they’re studying brain images of the volunteers to find changes in volume in certain thinking areas of the brain, as well as connections in the nerve network that’s responsible for higher order skills like processing, memory and reasoning.

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