Social enrichment on the job: Complex work with people improves episodic memory, promotes brain reserve, and reduces the risk of dementia

Individuals with more complex jobs experience better cognitive function in old age and a lower risk of dementia, yet complexity has multiple dimensions. Drawing on the Social Networks in Alzheimer Disease study, we examine the association between occupational complexity and cognition in a sample of older adults (N = 355). A standard deviation (SD) increase in complex work with people is associated with a 9% to 12% reduction in the probability of mild cognitive impairment or dementia, a 0.14-0.19 SD increase in episodic memory, and a 0.18-0.25 SD increase in brain reserve, defined as the gap (residual) between global cognitive function and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) indicators of brain atrophy. In contrast, complexity with data or things is rarely associated with cognitive outcomes. We discuss the clinical and methodological implications of these findings, including the need to complement data-centered activities (e.g., Sudoku puzzles) with person-centered interventions that increase social complexity.