Economic Downturns Linked to People's Cognitive Decline in Later Years

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • It’s been a tough few years economically around the globe. And while we’re focused on stock prices and housing starts, interest rates and the Federal Reserve, the economic downturn could have an impact much closer to home. Nope, I don’t mean your wallet; I do mean your brain.

    New research suggests that economic health may also be tied to cognitive health. Researchers out of the University of Luxembourg looked at data from 12,020 people who lived in 11 countries that participated in the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE).  The participants had cognitive assessments in 2004/2005 and 2006/2007, which were then linked to each individual’s work history that was retrospectively collected in 2008/2009. These data also were linked to the historical annual data of fluctuations in Gross Domestic Product per capita for each nation. The researchers then tried to determine whether recessions that were experienced during the ages of 25-34, 35-44 and 45-49 had any effect on the individual’s cognitive function when they were between the ages of 50-74.

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    The researchers found that each additional economic recession experienced between the ages of 45-49 was associated with worse cognitive function of men when they were between the ages of 50-74. Furthermore, each additional economic recession that was experienced by women when they were between the ages of 25-44 was associated with worse cognitive function when they were between the ages of 50-74.

    The analysis also found that economic recessions experienced by men at the ages of 45-49 influenced the risk of being laid off, which was a predictor of worse cognitive function later in life. The same was found for women who went through recessions when they were between the ages of 25 and 44 that forced them to work part-time and a greater possibility of downward occupational mobility. While this study didn’t prove a cause and effect, it did find an association between economic recessions and cognitive decline.

    While the researchers didn’t say “Alzheimer’s disease” or “dementia” in their summary, I would guess that some of the study participants eventually had this type of cognitive decline. Why? It isn’t stated in this study, but I have a hypothesis. I chalk it up to the effect of stress on the brain.

    For instance, NPR reported on a new study out of Sweden that found that women who said they were stressed in middle-age were more likely to develop dementia in old age. This longitudinal study involved collecting data from 800 women from 1968 (when they were between the ages of 37-54) and 2005. During that time period, 153 of the participants developed dementia while 425 of the participants died.

    As part of their study, the researchers asked the women about various psychosocial stresses, such as divorce or death in their family. Furthermore, the researchers collected data about loss of employment, mental illness, alcohol abuse by a close relative, and illness or social problems related to the husband. Additionally, the researchers conducted follow-up interviews over the course of the study in which they asked the participants if they experienced anxiety, nervousness, sleep issues, irritability or other types of distress.

  • The researchers’ analysis found that the participants who reported they were stressed at the start of the study were 20 percent more likely to be diagnosed with dementia later in life. Furthermore, the women who said they were distressed at multiple points during the three-decade study were more likely to developed Alzheimer’s disease when they were elderly.

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    Because this study suggests an association between stress and dementia, I’d suggest that chronic stress that increases cortisol levels may be to blame. And that’s why it’s important to try to lower stress levels whenever possible. So how can you do that? Here are some suggestions:

    • Exercise
    • Find ways to laugh.
    • Avoid people who irritate you.
    • Use the word “no.”
    • Meditate or, at the very least, focus on your breathing.
    • Set limits. For instance, you don't have to do everything on the holiday list (Christmas tree, Christmas cards, gifts for everyone) if you feel stressed. Pick the ones that you really want to do and delegate the ones that stress you out to other family members.
    • Don’t let things get bottled up inside you. Instead, communicate what’s going on.
    •  Focus on time management so your schedule doesn't overwhelm you.
    • Focus on gratitude. Reflecting on the people and things that you're thankful for at the end of the day helps ground your thinking into a more relaxed state. I try to recount 20 "blessings" from the day every night -- and often come up with many more. It truly does make a difference!

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Leist, A. K., et al. (2013). Do economic recessions during early and mid-adulthood influence cognitive function in older age? Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

    Mayo Clinic. (2013). Need stress relief? Try the 4 A’s.

    Shute, N. (2013). For middle-aged women, stress may raise Alzheimer’s risk. NPR.

Published On: November 26, 2013