Research News

Recessions during working life may lead to later cognitive decline

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 21 November 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6966
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. 1BMJ

More evidence that work is good for mental wellbeing comes from a study that found that people who live through economic recessions may have worse cognitive decline in later life, brought on by redundancy, enforced part time work, and lower paid and lower status jobs.

To examine whether recessions during working life affect cognitive function, researchers analysed data on 12 000 people in 11 countries who took part in the representative Survey of Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). This looks at the health, employment, and social conditions of Europeans aged 50 years or older.

Participants’ cognitive abilities were assessed in 2004-5 and 2006-7 and the findings linked to work histories collected in 2008-9 and to data on economic conditions in each country from 1959 to 2003. The researchers then looked at the possible effects of recessions at different periods in people’s lives on their cognitive ability at age 50-74, after taking account of a wide range of potentially influential factors, including birth before or after the second world war, self rated health, material deprivation, occupation of the household’s main breadwinner, and educational attainment.

The findings, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health,1 show that the average number of recessions experienced ranged from 0.73 for men between the ages of 45 to 49 to 1.33 for women between the ages of 35 to 44.

They showed that men who did not live through any recession in their mid to late 40s had a mean cognitive score of −0.07 at 50-74 years, whereas men in this age group who experienced four or more recessions had a mean score of −0.12. The cognitive effects of a recession on women seemed to occur earlier: in their mid 20s to mid 30s, with the respective scores being −0.05 and −0.17.

Economic recessions during the study period were associated with several labour market outcomes, such as lay-offs, enforced part-time working, and the need to take lower paid, lower status work.

When they looked at job conditions and cognitive function the researchers found that among men redundancy was associated with worse cognitive function at older age. Among women working part time and redundancy were associated with significantly lower cognitive function in later life. Working part time, redundancy, and downward mobility at ages 35-44 years were all associated with worse cognitive function in older age.

If the results were replicated, the researchers said, “policies that encourage women to enter and remain attached to the labour market through early adulthood and mid-adulthood, such as policies on schooling, maternity leave, and childcare support, may have unanticipated positive effects on female cognitive function.”

For men, “the later stages of their career may offer greater potential in increased cognitive reserve than earlier stages,” they said.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6966