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Paid Employment May Protect Women's Memory Later in Life, Study Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • A long-term study on more than 6,000 women found that those who worked had significantly slower rates of memory decline later in life.
  • The findings may offer clues about how to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that affects far more women than men and has no known cure.
  • Implementing policies that support working women could have a positive effect on cognitive health among older adults, experts say.

Having a job offers women many benefits—some of which we’re only now beginning to understand. In fact, working for pay during early adulthood and middle age may actually protect women’s memory later in life, according to a new study. 

Published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, the research focused on the relationship between women’s memory decline and their work-family experience throughout their lives. It found that those who held down a job for substantial periods of their lives before age 50 had a slower rate of memory loss compared with non-working women, regardless of whether they were married or had children.

With the burdens of the pandemic forcing large numbers of women to drop out of the workforce, understanding the health benefits offered by jobs could help shape public policy decisions around employment. The findings may also offer clues on how to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, which disproportionately affects women and has no known cure.

Paid Work May Benefit Women’s Memory

To understand how working, marriage, and raising children influence women’s memory later in life, researchers from the University of California Los Angeles and San Francisco, Harvard University, and Boston College looked at data on 6,189 women age 55 and up collected through the Health and Retirement Study. 

At the start of the study, participants were asked about the dates of their employment history, marriage, and children’s births (if any). The researchers then divided the participants into five groups, consisting of 4,326 working married mothers, 530 working single mothers, 488 working non-mothers, 526 non-working married mothers, and 319 non-working single mothers. 

Researchers gave the participants, who were all born between January 1935 and February 1956, a memory test which usually involved recalling a list of 10 words starting in 1995. The participants then completed a memory test every two years through 2016. The study tracked the women for 12.3 years on average.

The findings revealed that, on average, women who didn’t spend time in the workforce had a 50 percent greater decline in memory score between ages 60 and 70 years old compared with working married mothers.

The authors of the study, which was published on Nov. 4, 2020, say that the benefits of paid work on women’s memory may be the result of the greater financial security, social engagement, and cognitive stimulation that come with employment.

“Having a paid job also gives you a sense of purpose,” adds Liron Sinvani, MD, a hospitalist with a geriatrics focus at Northwell Health and assistant professor at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research. “All of these things together lead to this slowing of cognitive decline, even more than some other factors we think are very important, like having children or being in a relationship.”

While robust, the study did not take into account same-sex partnerships, differences between cisgender and transgender women, volunteer work, or whether women worked full-time or part-time. More research is needed to determine how these factors may play a role in long-term memory decline. 

What This Means For You

Many of us work to earn a paycheck. But financial compensation is not the only benefit of having a job. This study has found that women who spent a substantial time in paid employment had slower rates of memory decline than their non-working counterparts. The results may reveal important clues about ways to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, which affects higher rates of women than men.

Working women—especially mothers—are facing serious challenges during the pandemic, such as remote schooling and a lack of childcare. As a result, many have been forced to leave their jobs. Understanding the long-term health implications of employment could influence policymaking and encourage the government to provide more support to working women. 

Work Could Be Key to Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease

Memory loss that interferes with daily life is one of the biggest warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Around two out of every three people with the disease are women. 

There’s no treatment that can cure Alzheimer’s disease or slow its progression. Therefore, learning more about how various activities, like paid work, impact memory could help provide important clues about how to prevent the disease and related dementias, says James M. Ellison, MD, MPH, a geriatric psychiatrist and the chair of ChristianaCare’s Swank Center for Memory Care and Geriatric Consultation.

“What this study found is consistent with other evidence. What’s interesting is that women in this study were born more than 60 years ago, and things have changed. More women are in the workforce now, and we should be optimistic that this may be a factor against memory decline among women,” he explains.

James M. Ellison, MD, MPH

What’s interesting is that women in this study were born more than 60 years ago, and things have changed. More women are in the workforce now, and we should be optimistic that this may be a factor against memory decline among women.

— James M. Ellison, MD, MPH

Dr. Sinvani hopes to see future studies build upon this research to help doctors develop an even deeper understanding about how the things we do throughout our lives impact our cognitive health as we age.

“This study helps generate hypotheses and offers preliminary data. We need to look at women starting a lot earlier, though. A lot of what happens to you in your youth and teenage years will influence whether you do work or not, and we need to see what implications this has,” she says. 

Supporting Women at Work

The research on employment and memory loss comes as the COVID-19 pandemic has created serious barriers, like remote schooling and lack of childcare, to women staying at work. In fact, around 865,000 women left the U.S. labor force in September—four times the number of men who stopped working during that time, according to an analysis from the Center for American Progress.

The authors of the study say that policies supporting women at work could be an effective way to curb memory decline among older adults.

Closing the gender wage gap could be one way to help encourage women’s participation in the workforce, allowing the population at large to potentially reap health benefits, says Dr. Ellison. 

“We also need to support maternity and paternity leave, education programs for moms who want to return to the workforce after having children, and support for childcare,” he says. 

Assuming the right policies are put in place and women get the support and fair compensation they need to stay at work, we may see a decline in memory loss, and potentially reduced rates of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, over the long term. 

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