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Work-family demands and late-life memory decline in women

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Research reported today at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) 2019 in Los Angeles identified a number of differences in the progression and risk of Alzheimer’s disease between women and men, including newly identified sex-specific risk genes and contrasting presentation of Alzheimer’s biology in the brain.

Two-thirds of people living with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States are women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2019 Alzheimer's Disease Facts & Figures report. There are a number of potential reasons why more women than men have Alzheimer’s or other dementias; a longheld view has been that it is due to women living longer than men, on average, but new evidence suggests that may not be the whole story.

Women have experienced drastic changes in patterns of employment and family circumstances over the last 100 years. To better understand how women’s work-family demands (paid labor force participation, marriage, motherhood) may play a role in late-life memory decline, Elizabeth Rose Mayeda, assistant professor of epidemiology at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and team studied 6,386 women born between 1935 and 1956 in the Health and Retirement Study.

Women in the study reported waged employment, marital and parenthood status between ages 16 and 50. Memory performance was measured using standardized tests approximately every two years starting when the women were age 50 or older.

The researchers found that women in the study who participated in the paid labor force between early adulthood and middle age, including mothers and non-mothers, experienced slower memory decline in late-life. Rate of memory decline was fastest among women who did not engage in waged employment. For example, compared with married mothers who participated in the paid labor force:

  • average memory performance between ages 60 and 70 years declined 61% faster for married women with children who never engaged in waged employment, and
  • average memory performance between ages 60 and 70 years declined 83% faster for women who experienced a prolonged period of single motherhood without waged employment.

Based on these findings, the scientists suggest that participation in the paid labor force may play an important role in late-life cognitive health for women in the United States. This builds on prior research that has found participation in the workforce is associated with higher levels of cognitive stimulation and increase in cognitive reserve.

“Though preliminary, our research provides evidence that participation in the paid labor force may help prevent late-life memory decline among women in the United States. Possible pathways include mental stimulation, financial benefits, and social benefits,” said Mayeda. “Future research should evaluate whether policies and programs that facilitate women’s full participation in the paid labor force are effective strategies to prevent memory decline.”

- Written by AAIC staff