Lay-offs, lower pay and downward job mobility are all a depressing reality of economic recessions. But new research suggests these factors not only affect our bank accounts, but also our risk of cognitive decline in later life.
Researchers from the study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health by the BMJ, note that previous research has suggested working conditions can affect build-up of "cognitive reserve," which can in turn influence cognitive performance later in life.
Because higher cognitive ability from the outset could influence whether individuals are in more favorable jobs or working environments, the researchers wanted to know whether economic recessions could make a difference, as individuals have little or no control in these cases.
As a result, they assessed data from the Survey of Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), which involved 12,000 individuals in 11 countries. The survey looked at health, employment and social conditions of Europeans over the age of 50.
The cognitive abilities of study participants from 2004 to 2007 were analyzed retrospectively in 2008-09 and were linked to detailed work histories.
Additionally, the researchers looked at yearly per capita fluctuations in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in each of the 11 countries between 1959 and 2003 to determine economic downturns.
From there, the team assessed the impact of recessions the individuals experienced at ages 25-34, 35-44, and 45-49 on cognitive ability during the ages of 50-74.
On average, men between the ages of 45-49 experienced the lowest number of recessions, at an average of 0.73 recessions, while women between the ages of 35-44 experienced the most, at 1.33.
The results of the analysis revealed overall that those who lived through economic recessions in early to mid-life were at higher risk of cognitive decline after the age of 50.
In detail, men who did not experience any recession during the ages of 44-49 had an average cognitive score of minus 0.07 at ages 50-74, compared with an average score of minus 0.12 for men who experienced four or more recessions.
For women, the impact of a recession on their cognitive score happened earlier. Those who did not encounter a recession in their mid-20s to mid-30s had a mean cognitive score of minus 0.05, while those who experienced four or more had an average score of minus 0.17.
The researchers note that economic recessions during these time periods were associated with adverse conditions, such as lay-offs, enforced part-time working and the need to take lower paid work.
They note that if replicated in future studies, their findings "indicate that policies that ameliorate the impact of recessions on labor market outcomes may promote later-life cognitive function."
The researchers continue:
"Life course theory suggests that individuals may be more susceptible to environmental influences during certain development stages. In this regard, our findings provide preliminary evidence on associations between macroeconomic shocks during working life and later-life cognitive function."