Low-income workers are more likely to suffer memory decline and face greater risk of dementia later in life, according to a new medical study released Tuesday.
“Our research provides new evidence that sustained exposure to low wages during peak earning years is associated with accelerated memory decline later in life,” said Katrina Kezios, a researcher at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
The findings, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, will be discussed Tuesday at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.
Low-wage jobs — persistent poverty — has long been associated with poor health outcomes such as depression, obesity, and hypertension.
These risk factors are associated with cognitive decline while aging.
But the Columbia University researchers claim that until now no studies had examined the specific relationship between low wages during working years and later-life cognitive functioning.
A previous Columbia study found that parents who have three or more kids are at more risk of memory decline and dementia.
The researchers in the new analysis examined data from 2,879 individuals born between 1936 and 1941, using records from the national Health and Retirement Study of adults for the years 1992 to 2016.
Kezios and her Columbia colleagues looked at participants’ incomes and categorized those who consistently had low wages, sometimes had low wages or did not have low wages at all from 1992 to 2004.
They then outlined the relationship with memory decline over the next 12 years from 2004-2016.
The researchers found that, compared with wealthier workers who never earned low wages, sustained low-income earners experienced significantly faster memory decline in older age — an average of one year more of cognitive aging per a 10-year period.
“Our findings suggest that social policies that enhance the financial well-being of low-wage workers may be especially beneficial for cognitive health,” said study author Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Butler Columbia Aging Center.
“Future work should rigorously examine the number of dementia cases and excess years of cognitive aging that could be prevented under different hypothetical scenarios that would increase the minimum hourly wage.”
Low-wage or “low skill” employees often face higher higher health risks such as toxic exposures and work-related stress.
The study sample included a total of 1,749 workers ‘never’ exposed to low wages, 851 workers with periodic bouts of low wages and 79 workers with ‘sustained’ low wages throughout their midlife employment history.
Compared with individuals who ‘never’ earned low wages, those with ‘intermittent’ or ‘sustained’ low-wage exposure were more likely to be female, black, born in the south and had fewer years of education and lower household wealth.