Women who work in the paid labor force in early adulthood and middle age may have slower memory decline later in life than those who do not work for pay, according to a study released Wednesday by a UCLA- led team of researchers.
“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, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
“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.
The study — published in the online issue of Neurology — involved nearly 6,200 women who had an average age of 57 at the beginning of the research and were followed for an average of 12 years, during which they were given memory tests every two years.
The researchers found that memory scores were similar for all women between the ages of 55 and 60, but that the average rate of decline on the memory test scores for women after age 60 was slower for those who participated in the paid labor force than for women who did not.
From age 60 to age 70, the average memory decline among working married mothers was 0.69 standardized units compared to a faster memory decline of 1.25 standardized units among non-working single mothers and 1.09 standardized units among non-working married mothers, the researchers said.
“Policies that help women with children participate in the workforce could be an effective strategy to prevent memory decline in women,” Mayeda said.
Memory decline can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s dementia, and more women than men live with Alzheimer’s dementia, added the study’s co-author, Taylor Mobley, a senior research analyst at the Fielding School.
The research team also included Robert Weiss, Fielding School professor of biostatistics, along with researchers from Boston College, Harvard and UC San Francisco. The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the Karen Toffler Charitable Trust.