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A new reason for women to stay in the workforce? A sharper memory

Photo by Brooke Lark of Unsplash

Women are nearly twice as likely to be impacted by cognitive decline in men—and currently, almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women. But there might be some good news for working women who want to keep their memory sharp. Just keep working.

New research published in Neurology suggests women who are employed during their early adulthood and midlife years show slower rates of memory deterioration after 55 years of age. This is true irrespective of a woman’s marital or parental status, according to the researchers.

“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,” said Elizabeth Rose Mayeda, PhD, MPH, of the University of California Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health.

In fact, memory decline was 50% greater for women who didn’t return to the workforce after having children, according to the study. Interestingly, working was associated with warding off memory decline regardless of timing for married working mothers, even if they left and returned the workforce to birth or raise children.

“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,” Mayeda said.

The study followed more than 6,100 women for 12 years. Researchers conducted memory examinations after dividing the study participants into groups based on marital status, parental status and work status, among other factors. They studied the participants' work and family life between the ages of 16 and 50.

Interestingly, memory examination results were alike for all women between the ages of 55 and 60. After the age of 60, the average rate of decline on memory examination results was slower for women in the workforce compared to women who were not working.

It’s important to note the results of the study did not determine cause and effect. However, there is an association between employment in women and slower rates of memory deterioration.

“This is particularly relevant for women because life course patterns of working, childrearing, and marriage have changed dramatically over the last century, with an increasing number of women joining the paid labor force,” Michelle M. Mielke, PhD, and Bryan D. James, PhD, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago wrote in an accompanying editorial.

The results of this study do suggest that women should be part of the workforce when they are able. Memory loss is one of the first symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which affect more women than men because women tend to live longer. Interventions to keeping women working could help slow the progression of cognitive decline.

“Policies that help women and children participate in the workforce may be an effective strategy to prevent memory decline in women,” Mayeda said in the same statement. “However, our observational study cannot determine cause and effect, so while our results are promising, more research is needed.”

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