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Cognitive Pension

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COULD WOMEN’S PARTICIPATION in the paid labor force during early adulthood and middle age bode well for their cognitive health later in life? A study led by Elizabeth Rose Mayeda, a Fielding School assistant professor of epidemiology, suggests it might.

In an effort to better understand what role, if any, women’s work-family demands play in late-life memory decline, Mayeda and her colleagues analyzed data from the national Health and Retirement Study of more than 6,000 women born between 1935 and 1956. Women in the study reported on their waged-employment history as well as their marital and parenthood status between the ages of 16 and 50. Memory performance was measured using standardized tests approximately every two years starting when these women were 50 and older. Mayeda reported the findings at the 2019 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles.

Of the three work/family variables measured, participation in the paid workforce stood out when it came to later-life cognitive health. For example, compared with married mothers who participated in the paid labor force when of working age, average memory performance between ages 60 and 70 declined 61% faster among married mothers who did not engage in paid employment. Additionally, average memory performance of women who experienced a prolonged period of single motherhood without waged employment declined 83% faster than married mothers who participated in the paid labor force. Mayeda notes that women didn’t have to spend the entire period from 16 to 50 in the paid labor force to reap the later-life cognitive benefits — those who took time away from work when their children were young, for example, showed similar trajectories as those who did not.

Two-thirds of people living with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States are women. Given that age is the biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s and other dementias, it’s been widely assumed that this can be attributed to women’s average lifespan in the U.S. being approximately five years longer than men’s. But Mayeda’s research raises the possibility that other factors might also be involved.

Although the study wasn’t designed to draw conclusions on the factors driving the differences in later-life cognitive health, Mayeda notes that previous research has found an association between participation in the workforce and higher levels of cognitive stimulation, along with increases in cognitive reserve. Mayeda also points to the potential financial and social benefits from paid labor-force participation. “For women born in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, working might have meant more financial independence and power to make decisions about their lives, including ways to promote their cognitive health,” Mayeda says. Other studies have suggested that social engagement positively influences later-life cognitive health.

“Certainly, women living longer than men plays a significant role in the disproportionate number of women with Alzheimer’s dementia in the U.S.,” Mayeda says. “But even if that’s the only reason, it highlights the need to study the factors that influence dementia risk for women. Future research should evaluate whether policies and programs that facilitate women’s participation in the labor force are effective strategies to prevent memory decline.”