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Your Neighborhood Bartender’s Body Is Broken and Their Brain Is Fried

But at least the memory skills they’re practicing will serve them well when they’re still working at 80

I’ve had a lot of strange things said to me while I’m working, but this line truly caught me off guard: “You know, the odds are good you’ll never have a stroke.”

It was a weeknight in Harvard Square. I was one of two people working the bar. We’d just gotten through our first real pop of the evening when the man sitting a few seats down began telling me about my superhuman bartender brain. Academic-type folks would often come in and knock back a few drinks after class, so there was at least some chance my guy wasn’t totally full of shit and/or trying to hit on me with the world’s oddest pick-up line.

“That’s excellent news, but what makes you say that?” I responded.

“This kind of work — the multitasking, using your hands — it can help prevent brain diseases,” he said.

Off to my left, I could hear the service printer crank out a ticket with a drink order on it. There was a pause as the machine perforated the end of one piece of paper, one table’s order, and then it cranked again, pushing out another ticket. (I still hear that fucking printer in my sleep.)

I looked at the ticket:

  • Whiskey Sour
  • Whiskey Sour *EGG WHITE*

Okay. Two whiskey sours, one with an egg white: Crack the egg and separate out the yolk; measure and pour the simple syrup, the lemon juice, the whiskey; dry-shake the drink with the egg white; crack the tins; add ice to both shakers and shake like mad, making sure the tin with the egg drink is in my right hand (my left just doesn’t shake as hard); set the shakers down, grab rocks glasses; crack the tins and pour the cocktails, ice and all for the one sans egg but double-straining the egg-fortified drink into the glasses.

It struck me how quickly and readily those steps appeared in my brain.

When I looked back up, the man was gone, but his comment stayed with me.

Dozens of articles have been written about how hard the service industry is on its members’ mental health. This burnout is very, very real. I’ve cried in the bathroom at work out of sheer stress and frustration more times than I can count. I’ve seriously considered sleeping in the office between closing one night and opening for brunch the next morning. I’ve put a solid dent in many a bottle of tequila while on the clock.

But there might be a silver lining to all that stress: The guy at the bar was right. Sort of.

Cognitive Reserve (Or: How Many Brain Cells Can You Afford to Lose?)

Andrew Budson is associate director and education core leader at Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center and professor of neurology at Boston University’s School of Medicine. He tells me the type of work that goes into bartending — the manual muscle memory, the multitasking, even the social aspects of the job — can help build up cognitive reserve, a type of surplus brain power, which can greatly diminish the effects of microstrokes and degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. “I want to be very clear and say that cognitive reserve won’t prevent a stroke from happening, but it can greatly reduce the impact that sort of pathology has on your ability to function,” Budson tells me.

Having high levels of cognitive reserve is a lot like the brain equivalent of having a well-muscled body: If The Rock and I both got hit by a car and ended up in a coma for six months, Dwayne Johnson would be much more likely to still have working biceps when he came to. “By using your brain multitasking, like people who work in restaurants do every day, by keeping all these different things in mind, you’re essentially working to help expand your memory capacity,” Budson explains. “By training yourself to remember all those things, even if you were to get some brain disease, you’re going to have an easier time remembering multiple things, doing this kind of multitasking, than someone who’s never bartended.”

Basically, because of the type of work I do, compared to someone who isn’t faced with things like tracking orders, remembering recipes, physically making drinks and remembering who needs a check when, I’ve got memory cells to burn. Or, like Budson says, “Losing memory brain cells is going to impair them much more significantly than someone who is in your line of work.”

Ultimately, it comes down to how many brain cells a person can lose and still maintain basic function. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with intelligence, although Budson says the effects of Alzheimer’s and strokes may be more noticeable in people who aren’t what you’d call the sharpest tools in the shed: “If you’re a college professor, or literally a rocket scientist, you can lose a lot of brain cells and you’re still going to be able to balance the checkbook because balancing the checkbook was always a really easy thing for you to do. Someone else who has always struggled balancing the checkbook, or other basic tasks, isn’t going to be able to lose as many brain cells and still maintain that sort of cognitive function.” 

Ultimately, restaurant work won’t make you smarter, but it’s a hell of a workout for your memory. Memory is the cognitive ability most frequently and severely damaged by dementia, and as such, our memories are more resilient to dementia’s effects.

You Talkin to Me? If So, Please Continue, Its Helping My Brain

When I finish up at work, the last thing I want to do is talk to anyone. Why? Because I’ve been talking to and interacting with people all night. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting, having that many interactions and fulfilling that many requests for that many hours. But it’s another key component of why work in restaurants can be good for your brain.

Another hugely important factor in maintaining cognitive function (with or without the presence of dementia) is social activity. In his book Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory: What’s Normal, What’s Not and What to Do About It, Budson and co-author Maureen O’Connor highlight a study that found that the most socially active of 1,000 older adults showed 70 percent less cognitive decline after five years than those with the lowest rates of social activity. “Humans are social animals. Our social relationships continue to be important as we age — so important, in fact, that our social experiences help our brains age successfully,” Budson writes. Essentially, as we age, our social circles tend to shrink, and with that diminished socializing comes increased cognitive impairment.

Which is why assisted-living facilities and retirement homes emphasize social activities so strongly: Bingo night, communal TV time, consistent meal times, poker night. All of these events are organized to give elderly residents an opportunity to socialize.

All of this still isn’t to say that I — or anyone else in the industry — won’t end up with Alzheimer’s or life-impairing dementia; it simply means the odds of a degenerative brain condition being truly debilitating are much lower than someone who’s never regularly juggled 16 orders in their head and remembered everything.

Which is great, because let’s be real: I’m going to be working until I’m 70 no matter what.