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Having a paying job might shield women from memory loss decades later, according to a new study.

That’s because paid work may offer mental stimulation, financial benefits and social connections that could limit declines in memory as women age, said Elizabeth Rose Mayeda, who led the research as an assistant professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.

With women making up nearly two-thirds of all Americans living with Alzheimer’s, the research suggests that preventing the disease may require more than drugs or medical interventions.

“Policies that promote equal pay for equal work, paid family leave and affordable child care” could one day be part of the conversation about women’s dementia in old age, said Mayeda, who presented her findings Tuesday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles.

The research is preliminary and has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, but Rebecca Edelmayer, director of scientific engagement at the Alzheimer’s Association, said “it’s possible that work in mid-life may actually be protective.”

“Roles for women in the workforce and family have really changed dramatically over the years,” she added, “so it’s important that we continue to study the relevance of those changes and how they could be impacting the risk for women related to Alzheimer’s disease.”

The women facing a higher risk

Mayeda’s team looked at more than 6,000 women born between 1935 and 1956 and collected their family and employment histories through age 50. Over two decades, from 1995 to 2016, the women underwent regular cognitive assessments. They were asked to recall lists of words from memory, for example, and fill out questionnaires on cognitive decline.

Rates of memory decline were similar in mothers and non-mothers who worked, but memory decline was fastest in women who weren’t part of the workforce.

Married mothers who didn’t work, for example, saw their memory decline 61% faster over a 10-year period than those with paid jobs.

The differences were even more striking in single mothers: Their memories declined 83% faster if they didn’t participate in the workforce.

But that work didn’t have to be continuous to offer protection, Mayeda said. Married mothers who took time off to care for children but rejoined the workforce, for example, still saw slower memory declines.

“Women who engaged in the paid labor force for at least a significant time period appeared to have slower rates of memory decline in later age,” said Mayeda. “It didn’t mean that you had to work continuously, for example, in your 20s, 30s and 40s.”

Workforce offers financial benefits, ‘engagement’

Paid work may offer economic benefits that influence health, said Dr. John Rowe, a professor of health policy and aging at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

“They’re in the labor force which means they may have health insurance, which gives them better access to care than people without health insurance,” Rowe said.

But work also brings people together, he said, and “there are very few jobs you get paid to do where you’re not interacting with other people.”

Offering women “social engagement” and allowing them to build a “social network through work” could protect against memory loss, Mayeda said. Her findings weren’t surprising to Rowe, who was not involved in the study, because “engagement” has been shown to prevent cognitive decline as people age.

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“There are many studies that have shown that people who are engaged have greater physical and cognitive well-being than people who are not,” he said. That may not have to be paid work, he added, but could include volunteering as well.

“We need to begin to look at engagement, work for pay or volunteering, as health promotion and disease prevention,” said Rowe. “When a physician sees a patient, they shouldn’t just be asking about blood pressure and exercise, but should also ask how patients spend their lives.”