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Alzheimers, Aging, and the Working Woman

Can your employment status contribute to protecting your brain health?

Shutterstock
Shutterstock

As we grow older, many of us experience problems in remembering certain things. This is normal. Some people however experience greater mental slips than others. Studies have shown how Alzheimer’s disease affects women much more than men. A recent study however notes how women who work for pay are at a significantly lower risk for cognitive decline than women who do not work for pay.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease or senile dementia is a progressive illness that destroys memory and other important mental functions. Although there are many advancements in the treatment of the disease, no cure exists. One of the most beautiful portrayals of the progression of this illness is through the biographical movie “Iris” based on Dame Iris Murdoch, the marvellous Irish novelist and philosopher, starring Dame Judi Dench and Kate Winslet. In it you see the brilliant mind of Iris at the height of its glory, and you live through it’s gradual decline. Iris Murdoch is one of the greatest writers of our times and to see her struggle with her language, her forgetfulness, her disorientation and confusion, her inability to create new memories and at one point inability to recognise herself of her family – is truly agonising. Yet, having read her books, you know her as having been alive, vital and passionate about life. Despite being a working woman, Iris was not as lucky.

Why do women suffer more than men?

Majority, i.e. two thirds of people living with Alzheimer’s are women. From the ages of 65 to 84, the prevalence of dementia doubles every five years. The process of Alzheimer’s starts in the brain 20 or 30 years before its first symptoms appear. Our generation is living longer than any generation before us . Also, since women tend to live even longer than men, it could be that more women experience these symptoms than men. Additionally, female brains age differently than male brains.

Modifying this risk

Less education, air pollution, physical inactivity, hearing loss, diabetes, hypertension, smoking (passive and active), excessive alcohol consumption and social isolation have already been identified as modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s dementia in both men and women. In addition to these we now add a promising new study that suggests that women who work-for-pay have better cognitive health than those who do not, regardless of any amount of housework or raising kids that is undertaken. While in India, it is culturally encouraged and commonly believed that working leads to tremendous stress and strain, and therefore women should focus on being home-makers and leave the earning to men, this UCLA study that followed over 6000 women for 12 years, found that the rate of memory decline was astonishingly greater by 50% amongst those women who did not work for pay in comparison to working mothers. This included working women who had taken long break and returned to the workforce after almost a decade . The researchers believed that constant cognitive and social engagement in addition to having a purpose in life other than being a parent or partner, can be beneficial to the brain.

Prevention and Alzheimers

There is a pressing need to become ambitious about Alzheimers prevention. Not only should we be focusing on educating the girl child but also on encouraging our daughters, wives, mothers and grandmothers to be part of the paid workforce. This would require that our sons, husbands, fathers and grandfathers participate in unpaid labour, housework and raising children. An equal division of labour- both paid and unpaid, promotes the best interests of entire families and family dynamics. When you empower women politically, socially, and economically you automatically promote their health – physical, psychological and cognitive. While the fight for closing the gender gap is ongoing at both the policy level and culturally, it is important for a woman to take her health into her own hands. In whatever way possible – big or small – it is important to exercise your brain just like you exercise your body.

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