Bosses do best in avoiding dementia

A UNSW study has shown a clear link between brain size and integrity in elderly people and the number of people they managed and supervised in their working careers.

Above: Dr Michael Valenzuela, Leader of Regenerative Neuroscience in UNSW’s School of Psychiatry

By Keryn Curtis

A desk job, as long as you’re managing plenty of staff, isn’t all bad news for your health, according to new research presented for the first time today in Sydney at the Brain Sciences UNSW symposium, Brain Plasticity –The Adaptable Brain.

For the first time, UNSW researchers have identified a clear link between managerial experience throughout a person’s working life and the integrity and larger size of an individual’s hippocampus – the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory – at the age of 80.  

The research, which comprises the doctoral work of Mr Chao Suo, was supervised by Dr Michael Valenzuela, Leader of Regenerative Neuroscience in UNSW’s School of Psychiatry, in collaboration with Scientia Professor Perminder Sachdev’s Memory and Ageing Study based in Sydney.  It used MRI imagery in a cohort of 75-92 year-olds.

Researchers found larger hippocampal volumes in those with managerial experience compared to those without, even after accounting for any of a number of possible alternative explanations, suggesting that managing other people at work triggers structural changes in the brain which protects its memory and learning centre well into old age.

Dr Valenzuela said the study assessed the complexity of the managerial role by the number of people the person had managed at any time in their working lives.

“We asked them, what was the maximum size of the team you managed, starting with none, or one to two, or up to 10 or greater than 10.  

“We used several different types of brain imaging technology – firstly looking at the whole brain.  And that suggested that the link was in the hippocampus.

“Then we focused in on the hippocampus.  The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is the memory centre. It is responsible for short term memory and for remembering places and making and creating mental maps and it’s highly connected to other parts of the brain and really important for mental function. If it shrinks markedly, it’s one of the key warning signs for Alzheimer’s disease.”

“We found a clear relationship between the number of employees a person may have supervised or been responsible for and the size of the hippocampus. […] So if you were at some point in your working life in charge of 10 or more people, that may have some protective effect for the hippocampus,” Dr Valenzuela said.

Dr Valenzuela said it was interesting to try to understand what it is about management experience that led to this effect. 

“This could be linked to the unique mental demands of managing people, which requires continuous problem solving, short term memory and a lot of emotional intelligence, such as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. Over time this could translate into the structural brain changes we observed.”

He said a good thing about the research was the link between hippocampal size and integrity and management experience was shown in male participants who had followed traditional management career paths, but was was also seen in women who had taken on managerial roles in nursing or teaching, for example. 

Dr Valenzuela said while it was known that management experience in big population studies seemed to be linked to a lower risk of dementia, this was the first study linking management experience with the hippocampus.

“The findings refine our understanding of how staying mentally active promotes brain health, potentially warding off neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. It’s all about brain plasticity – what you do with your brain from day to say does have an influence on the make-up of your brain in 20-30 years,” he said.

Running from dementia

In another new study presented for the first time at the UNSW symposium today, leading international neuroscientist, Dr Henriette van Praag, detailed findings of her research which isolated exercise as the key factor in triggering the production of functional new cells in the learning and memory centre of the brain.

Dr van Praag, from the US National Institute on Aging, has demonstrated a causal link between exercise and brain regeneration, or neurogenesis, in the brains of mice which she says raises crucial questions about the potential of exercise to maximise cognitive function in humans throughout life and to build a brain “buffer” to hold off neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Dr Valenzuela is also author of It’s Never too late to Change your Mind and Maintain your Brain – what you can do to improve your brain’s health and avoid dementia.

For the full Brain Sciences UNSW program and speakers’ list go to http://www.brainsciences.unsw.edu.au

Tags: alzheimers-research, brain-research, brain-science, chao-suo, cognitive-function, dr-henriette-van-praag, dr-michael-valenzuela, hippocampus, memory-and-ageing-study, professor-perminder-sachdev, regenerative-neuroscience, school-of-psychiatry, scientia, university-of-new-south-wales, unsw, us-national-institute-on-aging,

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