Women: Want to prevent memory loss? Stay in the workforce, study shows

Women: Want to prevent memory loss? Stay in the workforce, study shows

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By Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, IF Founder and CEO, Ms.Medicine

Researchers have uncovered a new factor in preventing memory loss in older women. The secret? Stay working.

A study presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in 2019 and recently published in the online journal of Neurology suggests that “work in mid-life may actually be protective” when it comes to impacting the risk for women and Alzheimer’s Disease, according to Elizabeth Rosa Mayeda, assistant professor of epidemiology at UCLA who lead the research.

The study looked at the family and employment histories of 6,000 women – now in their 60s, 70s and 80s—through age 50. Researchers examined cognitive abilities of the women over two decades and found that the rates of memory decline were similar for mothers and non-mothers. However, memory decline was fastest in women (regardless of motherhood) who had not been a part of the workforce. And the differences were remarkable: Single mothers who didn’t work experienced memory decline 83% faster over ten years than those who were in the workforce; (61% for married mothers who did not work). Even women who stopped and restarted paid work had lower rates of memory decline – meaning women who might have left the workforce to care for children and then returned still saw benefits of paid work.

“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,” Mayeda said.

Researchers suggest a few reasons why this may be the case:

Better healthcare: It’s possible that women in the paid workforce might have access to health insurance and thus, better healthcare, or at least access to preventative care and primary care, which might impact their risk for diseases and memory decline.

Engagement: There is an entire body of literature that supports the correlation between social and mental engagement and cognitive abilities. Women who take part in the paid workforce perhaps have higher levels of social engagement and/or mental stimulation which appears to have protective qualities.

These findings are especially important in 2020. The pandemic has exposed tremendous gender inequality in today’s paid workforce as more women are being pushed out of the workplace, forced to choose between their careers and caring for family. As childcare and school restrictions have adjusted to fight the spread of COVID-19, it is women who are forced to fill in. A McKinsey & Company and Lean In report found that more than 865,000 women left the workforce in September 2020 alone, compared to just over 200,000 men. Women are being disproportionality impacted in ways that not only might have financial effects, but according to this new research, could also have long-term health effects. What does this mean for women and their doctors? It’s important to understand the impact of engagement, mental stimulation and social interaction outside of the home. Healthcare providers should expand their clinical examinations to include work, hobbies, social interactions and other lifestyle factors that could impact cognitive health and happiness.