Women who stay home with the baby and never return to paid employment suffer from a 50 per cent worse memory decline in old age, a new study revealed.
Having a paid job keeps women’s memory sharp as they get older, with memory decline 50 per cent slower among elderly women who worked during their early adulthood or middle age – even with a long gap between jobs to raise a family.
The findings could help prevent conditions linked to memory decline such as Alzheimer’s disease, which affects women more than men.
Around 78 per cent of women aged between 25 and 54 living in the UK are employed and the number of women in the labour force increased by 20 per cent since 1975.
Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, followed a large number of women across the US to determine rates of memory decline and their causes
Dr Elizabeth Mayeda, study author, said rates of memory decline after age 55 were slower for those who spent substantial amounts of time in the paid workforce.
This also applied to those who stopped working for a number of years to raise children before returning to work – but not to those who didn’t return at any time.
‘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,’ she explained.
Adding that this could possibly be due to cognitive stimulation, social engagement or financial security gained from leaving the house to work.
The researchers divided 6,189 women into five groups based on their work and family history between the ages of 16 and 50.
Groups included working non-mothers, working married mothers, working single mothers, non-working single mothers and non-working married mothers.
They were then given memory tests every two years over an average period of 12 years to get a picture of potential memory decline over time.
While memory scores were similar for all women between ages 55 and 60, after 60, the average speed at which memory declined was slower for women who had previously held down a paid job at some point in their life.
Even when you consider age, education or childhood background, the team found memory decline was more than 50 per cent greater for women who did not work after having the children – or who had never worked in their life.
Dr Mayeda said the timing of labour force participation did not appear to matter.
Rates of decline were similar for married working mums – including those who consistently worked and those who stayed at home for a few years to raise children.
In fact it was the same for mums who stayed home for a short time and those who stayed home until their children were older and had moved out.
This suggests that the benefits of labour force participation may extend far into adulthood, explained Mayeda.
While memory scores were similar for all women between ages 55 and 60, after 60, the average speed at which memory declined was slower for women who had previously held down a paid job at some point in their life
Nearly 100 per cent of women scored between minus three and three standardised units on their first memory test, the researchers said.
Memory declined among working married mothers by 0.69 standardised units between the ages of 60 and 70, compared to 1.25 among single mothers who did not work.
The same was true for married mothers who did not work, where memory declined by 1.09 standardised units.
The study did not distinguish between part and full time employment, and did not examine volunteering, only work for pay.
Dr Mayeda said: ‘Memory decline can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s dementia, and more women than men live with Alzheimer’s dementia.
‘Policies that help women with children participate in the workforce may be an effective strategy to prevent memory decline in women.
‘However, our observational study cannot determine cause and effect, so while our results are promising, more research is needed.’
Same-sex partnerships were not considered in the study, nor did it distinguish between cisgender and transgender women.
The findings were published in the online issue of the journal Neurology.
WHAT IS DEMENTIA? THE KILLER DISEASE THAT ROBS SUFFERERS OF THEIR MEMORIES
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of neurological disorders
A GLOBAL CONCERN
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders (those affecting the brain) which impact memory, thinking and behaviour.
There are many different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.
Some people may have a combination of types of dementia.
Regardless of which type is diagnosed, each person will experience their dementia in their own unique way.
Dementia is a global concern but it is most often seen in wealthier countries, where people are likely to live into very old age.
HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE AFFECTED?
The Alzheimer’s Society reports there are more than 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today, of which more than 500,000 have Alzheimer’s.
It is estimated that the number of people living with dementia in the UK by 2025 will rise to over 1 million.
In the US, it’s estimated there are 5.5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers. A similar percentage rise is expected in the coming years.
As a person’s age increases, so does the risk of them developing dementia.
Rates of diagnosis are improving but many people with dementia are thought to still be undiagnosed.
IS THERE A CURE?
Currently there is no cure for dementia.
But new drugs can slow down its progression and the earlier it is spotted the more effective treatments are.
Source: Alzheimer’s Society