Earning a living buys women more time with a sharper brain

Get to work.
Get to work.
Image: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In the US, women make up nearly 47% of the workforce—more than ever before. There’s loads of data showing that this is great for the companies that employ them. And now, there’s new data to suggest that it’s good for women’s brains, too.

Research from the University of California, Los Angeles being presented at this year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference finds that earning a living seems to stave off memory decline. Although this work is preliminary—it hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal—it could bolster the importance of policies that keep women in the workforce for longer, such as equal pay, childcare, and paid family leave.

“Our project is really looking at the social experience of women,” says Elizabeth Rose Mayeda, an epidemiologist who led the work (she’s employed full-time at UCLA). Historically, women have been the primary caregivers for families—which is unquestionably a form of work. As trends have shifted toward more women participating in the workforce, their day-to-day interactions appear to have an effect on their cognitive health.

Mayeda and her colleagues analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, which is funded by the US National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration. The study collected annual data from over 6,000 women in their 50s about their employment, parenthood, and marital status between 1995 and 2016. Every other year, researchers assessed their memories by asking them to memorize a series of words and recalling them later. The vast majority of women included in the work were working, married mothers, followed by working single moms, stay-at-home married moms, and stay-at-home single moms.

After the age of 60, most women were a little worse at recalling words as part of their memory assessment—as expected. Some decline in memory with age is normal. But women who had worked for pay for some of their lives did better on memory tests for longer. At age 70, a woman who worked outside the home would do about as well on a memory test as a 65-year-old woman who did not work.

None of these women were suffering from dementia, or even its first stage, known as mild cognitive impairment. However, this work suggests participating in the workforce could do something to boost women’s cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is like a resilience factor, explained Mayeda. The more your brain has, the more it can resist buildups of proteins that can ultimately lead to dementia.

Activities that challenge the brain to carry out complex tasks, like learning, help to build up cognitive reserve. Historically, neurologists have tracked years of education as a proxy for that stockpile. Research has shown that the longer someone stays in school, the less likely they are to develop dementia (though there’s no guarantee that anything will prevent dementia).

It may be that working outside the home has a similar effect. Previous work has shown (paywall) that people who work in high skill level jobs (pdf, p. 25) requiring a post-college degree while they’re middle-aged tend to do better on cognitive assessments later in life—especially when they involve math. Increased social interaction with other adults could also protect against decline, Mayeda says, although it’s impossible to tell with a study that simply follows participants over time instead of prescribing them with a certain lifestyle.

Women make up the majority of dementia cases worldwide, so it’s important for scientists to highlight any factors that may reduce their risk of developing the disease. The good news: There are policies that can keep women working outside the home. Closing the pay gap, allowing flexible working hours, and paid caregiving leave for all employees would all make it easier for women to remain in the workforce.