WELLNESS
11/30/2013 10:57 am ET

Recessions Associated With Cognitive Decline In Old Age, Study Finds

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The effects of economic recessions -- including layoffs and having to work lower-status or lower-paying jobs than you're qualified for -- could take a toll on cognitive functioning, a new study suggests.

Research published in The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health shows that the more recessions a person lives through in early and middle age, the more likely he or she is to experience cognitive decline later on in life.

University of Luxembourg researchers analyzed cognitive functioning of 12,000 people in 11 countries who were part of the Survey of Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe; their cognitive functioning was assessed in 2004-2005 and 2006-2007. Researchers compared those cognitive functioning scores with the participants' work histories, which were collected in 2008-2009, as well as any capita fluctuations in their countries' GDPs that occurred between 1959 and 2003 (in order to tally the number of recessions the participants lived through specifically at ages of 25 to 34, 35 to 44, and 44 to 49).

Then, researchers compared that number of recessions with cognitive ability at ages 50 to 74. They also took into account other potential influencing factors, such as education, type of first job, health and material deprivation, among others.

The cognitive scores of people between ages 50 and 74 was lower if they experienced more recessions earlier in life, according to the study. Specifically, men who did not live through any recessions in their mid- to late-40s had an average cognitive score of -0.07, while those who lived through at least four recessions in their mid- to late-40s had an average cognitive score of -0.12.

For women, those who did not live through any recessions in their mid-20s to mid-30s had an average cognitive score of -0.05 between age 50 and 74, while those who lived through four or more recessions in their mid-20s to mid-30s had an average cognitive score of -0.17 between 50 and 74.

"Men who experienced an additional economic recession at ages 45-49 fared worse cognitive outcomes later in life, which could potentially be due to high likelihood of job loss due to lay-off or plant closer at these ages," the researchers wrote in the study.

Meanwhile, for women, "experiencing an additional recession at ages 25-44 was also associated with poorer cognitive outcomes, which may be explained by their higher rates of job loss due to lay-off or plant/office closure, less stable job careers and higher likelihood of downward occupational mobility associated with recessions."

This is hardly the first time research has suggested that bad economic times can take a toll on physical and mental health. Recently, a study from researchers at Imperial College London and the University of Oulu found that being unemployed long-term is associated with shorter telomeres, which are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes; shorter telomeres are linked with premature aging.

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