Image of Elizabeth Rose Mayeda, Ph.D., MPH

Women who worked for pay as young adults and in midlife experience slower memory declines after age 60 than women who were not in the paid workforce, a new study has found. Marital or parenthood status had no effect on the results.

Investigators examined the relationship of work-family experiences in about 6,000 U.S. women aged 16 to 50, and memory decline after age 55. Participants were followed for an average of 12 years and given memory tests every two years.

Memory scores were similar across all work and family profiles between the ages of 55 and 60. But after age 60, the average rate of memory decline was slower for women who participated in the paid labor force than for women who did not. What’s more, the average rate of decline was fully 50% greater among women who did not work for pay after bearing children, compared with those who were working mothers. 

The timing of workforce participation did not matter, said study author Elizabeth Rose Mayeda, Ph.D., MPH, of the University of California, Los Angeles. Memory loss rates were similar whether a woman took few or many years off with children before returning to paid work, or remained consistently in the paid workforce.

The results suggest that the benefits of labor force participation may extend far into adulthood, Mayeda said. Since the majority of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are women, public policy that supports working women may reduce the personal, social and cost burden of the disease, she and her colleagues concluded.

Full findings were published online Wednesday in Neurology.