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Working May Be Good for Your Brain

November 24, 2020

Having a paying job may help to keep the memory sharp in old age. A new study found that American women who tended to have paying jobs as young adults into middle age had slower rates of age-related memory decline than women who did not have paying jobs. Conversely, women who did not have much paid work between the ages of 16 and 50 tended to have faster declines in memory later in life. Participation in the labor force appeared to help protect the brain, regardless of whether a woman was married or single, or had children or not.

“Our study followed a large number of women across the United States and found the rates of memory decline after age 55 were slower for those who spent substantial amounts of time in the paid workforce before age 50, even among those who stopped working for a number of years to raise children before returning to work,” said study author Elizabeth Rose Mayeda of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health in Los Angeles. “While there’s no debate that managing a home and a family can be a complex and full-time job, our study suggests that engaging in paid work may offer some protection when it comes to memory loss — possibly due to cognitive stimulation, social engagement or financial security.”

The study did not look at men, but other studies have shown that mental stimulation, social connection and low levels of financial stress may be tied to a lower risk of dementia in both men and women.

For the new report, researchers looked at 6,189 women whose average age was 57 at the start of the study. They got detailed work and family histories, and followed the women for an average of 12 years, conducting memory tests every two years.

Between the ages of 55 and 60, the women tended to score about the same over all on memory tests, regardless of their work histories. But after age 60, memory declines were slower among the women who had paying jobs when they were younger.

“We found the timing of labor force participation did not appear to matter,” said Dr. Mayeda. “Rates of memory decline were similar for married working mothers, including those who consistently worked, those who stayed home for a few years with children as well as those who stayed home many years before returning to the workforce, suggesting that the benefits of labor force participation may extend far into adulthood.”

“Policies that help women with children participate in the workforce may be an effective strategy to prevent memory decline in women,” Dr. Mayeda said. However, she noted that the study was observational, observing the women over time, so could not determine cause and effect. The study also did not distinguish between full-time and part-time work, and did not consider whether volunteer work might have a similar effect.

Other research has found that a challenging job may be good for the brain, and possibly even help ward off Alzheimer’s disease. A 2015 study from Germany, for example, found that over many years, professionals whose jobs require such skills as strategizing, speaking, resolving conflicts and managing others may be less likely to suffer from memory and thinking problems than those with less demanding jobs. The finding suggests that the type of work you do can be important for preserving brain health.

Other studies have shown that having many years of schooling may help to protect the brain against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Experts theorize that the mental demands of education may build up a so-called cognitive reserve, or a rich network of brain cells and connections. If some brain cells are damaged through the progression of Alzheimer’s, enough cells remain to compensate for the loss, at least for a time, the thinking goes.

Alzheimer’s is a years-long process, and many factors likely determine who develops dementia, including advancing age and indirectly the genes you inherit. But an increasing number of studies show that lifestyle factors such as education, exercise and having illnesses like diabetes or heart disease may also affect your risk. The mental challenges of work, these findings suggest, may also play a role in who ultimately develops Alzheimer’s disease, or at what age symptoms first appear. 

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Elizabeth Rose Mayeda, PhD, MPH; Taylor M. Mobley, MPH; Robert E. Weiss, PhD; et al: “Association of work-family experience with mid- and late-life memory decline in US women.” Neurology, Nov. 4, 2020

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