Women who work for pay have slower memory loss as they age, study finds

Working is better than not working for cognitive health, researchers say.
A job can offer social engagement and intellectual stimulation, which are known to be protective against cognitive decline.
A job can offer social engagement and intellectual stimulation, which are known to be protective against cognitive decline.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Working for a paycheck may come with an extra benefit when it comes to women’s brain health.

Women who have spent time in the paid workforce during their adult lives — regardless of whether they were married or single, with or without children — have slower rates of memory decline after age 60 than women who did not work for pay, a new study has found.

Women who had children, in particular, saw these benefits even when they stopped working for years to raise kids and then returned to their paid jobs.

Since memory decline can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s dementia and almost two-thirds of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease are women, the findings — published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology — offer insight into factors that might lower the risk.

In general, working is better than not working for cognitive health, said Erika Sabbath, study co-author and an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Boston College.

“Often when we think about work, we think about the hazards of work so things like stress and physical strain. But there are also a lot of real benefits to be derived from working,” Sabbath told TODAY.

“While there’s no debate that managing a home and a family can be a complex and full-time job,” it’s paid work that seems to protect from memory loss, added lead author Elizabeth Rose Mayeda, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, in a statement.

The potential benefits of a job include social engagement and intellectual stimulation, which are known to be protective against cognitive decline, Sabbath noted.

Another aspect is financial security, which provides both peace of mind and access to “all of the things that money can buy that help make life better and less stressful” like health care, a good diet and a gym membership, she added.

The findings are based on data from 6,189 women who were 57 years old on average at the start of the study. They were divided into groups based on whether they were married or single; with or without children; and whether they worked continuously, took a break or never had a paid job at all between the ages of 16 and 50.

As they were followed for about 12 years, the women were regularly given memory tests.

The researchers found that those who worked for pay experienced slower rates of memory decline, regardless of marital and parenthood status, than their non-working peers. Strikingly, the average rate of memory decline was 50% greater among women who didn’t work for pay after having children compared with those who were working mothers.

The study found an association, not a cause and effect.

Some challenge and stress can be helpful

There seem to be benefits of working for any kind of “significant chunk of time” during adult life, though the study didn’t specify how long is long enough to get the protective effect, Sabbath said. Even moms who stepped out of the workforce for a decade and then went back to their jobs had “cognitive trajectories” similar to moms who worked their entire lives.

“For women, there are real benefits to staying in the paid labor force, if that is something that you want,” she noted.

With COVID-19 disproportionately hurting working moms, it's going to be important to provide women with on-ramps to get back into paid work once the crisis is over — for many reasons, including cognitive health, Sabbath said.

The study findings made “perfect sense” to Dr. Monica Parker, an assistant professor of neurology and an education core member of the Goizueta Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta.

“When you're a working woman, you are socially engaged, you are using your language abilities. You are staying current, you're exercising your brain on a regular basis,” said Parker, who was not involved in the new study.

“Social engagement — that's a really big piece of this.”

Parker pointed to the 2020 report of the Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, which listed low social contact as one of the risk factors that can potentially be modified to delay or thwart memory loss.

But a job can also be a major source of stress, which can be harmful to the brain. The key is to find work that’s challenging, but also stimulating and enjoyable. For many people, it provides a sense of purpose in life.

Also, not all stress is bad: Research shows very boring and repetitive work, or working under tight time constraints with very little control over the process is worse for cognitive health than stressful work where people have a lot of responsibility but more control, Sabbath said.

The new study didn’t take volunteering outside the home into account, but Parker believed it would offer the same protective properties when it came to memory.

“It gives you purpose. It gives you meaning. It's something you enjoy and it keeps you engaged,” she said.