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Sustained low wages can cause memory to decline faster, new study finds

New study examines the relationship between low wages during working years and later-life cognitive functioning.
Low wages have been associated with depressive symptoms but early research suggests it can also force memory to decline faster.

If an individual has a sustained low wage, they are more likely to experience faster memory decline. 

That's according to a new study from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. The research compared U.S. workers who never earned low wages with chronic low-wage earners, and found that the latter group experienced "approximately one excess year of cognitive aging per a 10-year period."

"In other words, the level of cognitive aging experienced over a 10-year period by sustained low-wage earners would be what those who never earned low wages experienced in 11 years," states a press release from the university.

The researchers used records from the national Health and Retirement Study and analyzed data from 2,879 individuals born between 1936 and 1941. 

"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, author and postdoctoral researcher in the school's epidemiology department.

“This association was observed in our primary sample as well as in a validation cohort.”

Although sustained low wages have been associated with depressive symptoms, obesity and hypertension, no prior studies had looked at the relationship between low earnings during working years and later-life cognitive functioning. 

“Our findings suggest that social policies that enhance the financial well-being of low-wage workers may be especially beneficial for cognitive health,” said Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, another author of the study.

“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.”

The study's authors note the federal minimum wage in the U.S. has remained at $7.25/hour since 2009; increasing it to $15/hour "remains a gridlock issue in Congress."

Here in B.C., the minimum wage is currently $15.65/hour. It's among the highest in Canada, third to Nunavut ($16/hour) and Yukon ($15.70/hour).

The findings were published in the peer-reviewed publication the American Journal of Epidemiology.