Several studies find that socioeconomic factors — like living in lower-income neighborhoods, earning less money, or having parents who earned less money — are risk factors for faster brain aging, impaired memory and even dementia.
Socioeconomic status is a well-recognized determinant of health. Financial security opens doors to education, healthy foods and high-quality natural ingredients, and other health-related lifestyle factors — while reducing everyday stressors.
New research presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference indicates that factors like living in a low-income neighborhood, or earning low wages are associated with a higher likelihood of developing dementia.
“Our findings point to the importance of the conditions in which people live, work and age for their risk of developing dementia, particularly those who are already genetically more vulnerable,” Matthias Klee, a PhD student in psychology at the University of Luxembourg who was the first author on one of the studies, said in a news release.
“This knowledge opens new opportunities to reduce the number of people affected by dementia not only through public health interventions but also by improving socioeconomic conditions through policymaking.”
Low earnings and low-income neighborhoods
Researchers from the University of Luxembourg led a study examining the records of almost 200,000 healthy older individuals, with an average age of 64. Living in a low-income neighborhood more than doubled the likelihood of dementia for people with genetic risk factors, and almost doubled that likelihood for people without genetic risk factors.
Additionally, people living in a low-income neighborhood as well as those with low-socioeconomic status were more likely to have white matter lesions — the wearing away of brain tissue — a marker indicative of brain aging.
A second study led by Anthony Longoria, a clinical psychology PhD candidate at the University of Texas Southwestern, recruited 3,858 participants and found that poorer access to neighborhood resources was linked to lower cognitive scores in Black and Hispanic people, but not white people. The study also linked perceived neighborhood income, violence, lower access to health care and lower education to increased white matter biomarkers, suggestive of aging pathology.
“This is important given that minority groups disproportionately experience economic adversity and neighborhood disadvantage, in addition to being more likely to be diagnosed with dementia and receive less timely care,” said Longoria.
The research supports past findings, including a 2018 study in Neurology, which looked at a large participant group from different backgrounds in 16 different European countries and found that social and economic disadvantages in childhood may indeed have a negative impact on cognitive skills. The study findings indicated that growing up poor in houses that were crowded and had fewer books was linked to lower scores on tests that measure skills like thinking, learning, reasoning, remembering and problem solving later in life, and these outcomes stayed consistent even as researchers adjusted for variables like employment, education and physical health.
“Just like the body, the brain ages, but for some it may age faster than others,” study author Pavla Cermáková, M.D., Ph.D., of the Czech National Institute of Mental Health in Klecany, Czech Republic said of that 2018 research. “A growing body of evidence suggests aging of the brain may occur over a lifetime with its roots in childhood.”
Linking wages to dementia risk
Among the new research presented at AAIC was a look at a study by Jennifer Manly, Ph.D., professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and colleagues, who found that higher parental income was associated with improved resilience and cognitive abilities.
More than 100 volunteers with an average age of 56, had their blood drawn and measured for the Alzheimer’s biomarker pTau181, and their APOE and cognitive status were also assessed. While higher concentrations of pTau181 associated with worse memory, this effect was weaker in participants whose parents earned more money suggesting that high parental wages were associated with cognitive resilience later in life.
Lower income, higher rate of memory decline
A final study conducted by Katrina Kezios, PhD, at Columbia University assessed the longitudinal links between low wages and memory decline. This doesn’t mean that there’s a direct relationship between your brain’s biology and your paycheck, rather that there are complex socioeconomic factors that affect our health.
Women and racial minorities in the U.S. are not only more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s but also likely to earn lower wages. This leads to a domino effect of other risk factors — living near more polluted areas, more cardiovascular disease, and more mental health problems.
“Our findings suggest that social policies that enhance the financial wellbeing of low-wage workers, including increasing the minimum wage, may be especially beneficial for cognitive health,” said Kezios. The study which looked at more than 3,800 Americans over the age of 50, found low midlife wages over a period of 10 years was linked to faster memory decline.
Together, this work strengthens the existing research connecting poverty and socioeconomic disparities to accelerated cognitive aging and dementia.
“It’s vital we continue to study social determinants of health related to cognition, including socioeconomic status, so we can implement public health policies and create community environments that can improve the health and well-being of all,” said Matthew Baumgart, vice president of health policy at the Alzheimer’s Association.