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With all due respect

Every Issue

Cite as: March 2015 89 (3) LIJ, p.99

Grey matters

Lawyers often worry about the effect stress, long working hours and the inability to “switch off” has on their health.

All sorts of research has been done in America into the reason why lawyers are more likely to be depressed than other professionals, although right up there would be difficult clients with unrealistic expectations. WADR suspects that’s not how lawyers describe such clients to each other.

But in good news for the profession, it has been discovered that a mentally challenging occupation like the law might actually be good for your brain. WADR has heard lawyers say “my brain hurts”, when wrestling with Australia’s tax laws but it seems there may be gain in their pain.

In a recently published study, Scottish researchers gave a battery of tests to more than 1000 older people and they found that people in “thinking” occupations like law are less likely to experience cognitive decline as they age. Does this mean that older lawyers never lose their car keys or reading glasses or think, “why did I come into this room?”

The Edinburgh University study divided occupations into “data, people and things” and found that people whose jobs required complex work with data or people scored higher on cognitive ability at the age of 70 than people in other professions. It’s been described as “weight lifting for the brain”, the theory being that stimulating environments build “cognitive reserves” that help protect the brain from the effects of aging.

Instructing and negotiating, two tasks well known to lawyers, were rated as complex by the study. Your correspondent sort of wished they had looked into whether marriage has a similar effect on the brain.

The list of occupations found to have so-called high cognitive engagement is interesting. As well as lawyers, judges and magistrates it includes architects, cardiologists, pathologists, geneticists, civil engineers and strangely, to my mind, musicians. Most of the musicians I’ve ever known have a vocabulary that is bounded by “yeah man” and “where’s the bar?” but that might just be my experience.

So the message for lawyers seems to be that at the end of your career in the law your nerves may be shot, your body may be a wreck but your grey matter is in tip-top condition.

Of course, this study’s conclusions, scientific though they may be, will not surprise those who have argued for many years that mental stimulation is important for brain health. I suspect that if you spent enough time trying to work out the plot of a Lord of the Rings movie you would end up a genius.

I once watched a television documentary about American research that showed reading, dancing, playing a musical instrument or board games were associated with a lower risk of dementia. At least I think I did.

The consistent advice seems to be that lying on a couch, drinking beer and eating junk food while watching daytime TV is not good for your mental health as you get older.

Well there goes your correspondent’s retirement plan.

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