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Working for Lower Wages Linked to Faster Mental Decline As We Age: Study

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Aug 9, 2022

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Image Credit: Getty Images/Digital Gujju

There is a physical and emotional cost to consistently working for poor pay. Lower wages don’t just translate into luxuries, or even basic amenities — being inaccessible. In the long run, it can adversely impact people’s cognitive health, too — exposing them to a greater risk of dementia, according to new research.

The new study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, which was also presented last week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, is based on an analysis of more than 2,500 participants who were born between 1936 and 1941.

The researchers compared the wages the participants drew between 1992 and 2004; accordingly, they divided the participants into three categories based on whether they never earned low wages in their career, earned low wages only at certain points in life, or persistently earned low wages. Then, the participants’ cognitive health was assessed. The researchers studied the extent of memory decline in the participants across a 12-year-period, between 2004 to 2016.  

“Our research provides new evidence that sustained exposure to low wages during peak earning years is associated with accelerated memory decline later in life… This association was observed in our primary sample as well as in a validation cohort,” said lead author Katrina Kezios from the department of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School.

Their findings suggest that when workers consistently earned lower wages, they aged “significantly faster” cognitively — in comparison to their peers whose wages weren’t as low. On average, the acceleration in aging summed up to one extra year of decline every 10 years.

Interestingly, the magnitude of decline was found to be stronger among men. Given that women are, generally, at a greater risk of dementiaoutnumbering men in a 2:1 ratio — Kezios admitted to being surprised at this finding. However, she added that women are still at a greater risk of cognitive decline due to poor wages — since they outnumbered men in the persistently low-paid group. “Women disproportionately make up the group of workers earning low wages,” Kezios noted.


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The findings indicate that systemic prejudices — such as the gender pay gap, and motherhood penalty — don’t just hurt women’s careers, but also their quality of life, in the long run.

The reason behind the link between lower wages and faster cognitive decline isn’t absolutely clear, though. According to experts, one reason could be that people with limited economic means also have limited access to quality healthcare. “We should think about how to ensure access and equity around healthcare and around potential ways that may address components of risk individuals have during their life course,” says Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.

Further, past studies have pointed to a lack of education in childhood, along with hypertension, depression, physical inactivity, diabetes, and infrequent social contact as risk factors for dementia. Assessing their link to being caught in low-income jobs for long periods may help researchers gain greater insights into the link between wage structures and cognitive health.

According to Kezios, the present study is simply a “first pass” in the documentation of how persistently remaining in a low socio-economic category through the peak of one’s career can adversely impact their mental health — and, by extension, their quality of life. The research calls for policies to improve people’s economic condition in order to protect them from the prospect of a rapid decline in their memory functions.

“Our findings suggest that social policies that enhance the financial wellbeing of low-wage workers may be especially beneficial for cognitive health… Future work should rigorously examine the number of dementia cases and excess years of cognitive aging that could be prevented under different hypothetical scenarios that would increase the minimum hourly wage,” recommends co-author Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School.

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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