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Will the recession hurt your brain as well as your wallet?

by on 2013/12/16

Many of us are interested in how different lifestyle choices might affect our health and wellbeing. If we have good information, the choice to do certain things, or give others up, is within our control (given certain social and environmental constraints, of course). But what about factors that might affect our future health over which we have little or no control? A particularly topical example is economic recession. While indications are that things are improving in the UK economy, it has been the “longest and deepest recession since comparable records began in the 1950s” (taken from a good introductory guide from the BBC). How might that extended period of economic uncertainty affect adults who lived through and continue to be affected by those adverse conditions?

That’s exactly what a recently published study sought to examine, and its finding that recessions were associated with poorer cognitive function were discussed in a number of media outlets in the UK and internationally. For example, the headline from the stated “Recessions associated with cognitive decline in old age”, while the led with “How living through a recession can make your brain slower”. The Independent was a little less reverential in its headline, giving its readers the options of “has the recession: (A) dulled our wits, or (D) led to spurious claims?” First, the science bit.

What did the research say?

Dr Anja Leist from the Faculty of Language and Literature, Humanities, Arts and Education at the University of Luxembourg led the study, with co-authors from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Harvard School of Public Health. In introducing their study, the researchers highlighted how occupational factors (including working hours, solvent exposure, etc) had previously been associated with later cognitive function, but that these effects were possibly confounded by an individual’s early cognitive function and education. The researchers were therefore interested in how something at a broader level, like recession, might influence later cognitive functions. To address this, they used data from a large survey which included participants from 11 European countries: the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe (SHARE).

In their study, 12,020 participants in SHARE had full data for the planned analyses and were aged between 50 and 74 years old when they were first recruited. At recruitment, participants completed a short set of cognitive function tests, which were summarised as an overall score. At a later assessment, participants underwent a detailed interview where a job history was obtained. The researchers then used historical data to chart the economic trends in the 11 countries included, and then mapped this information to each participant (that is, they figured out how many booms and busts each individual worked through). Because the economic data were available from before the participants were recruited, the researchers were able to count the number of recessions each individual lived through across ages 25-34, 35-44 and 45-49.

The main question was how exposure to recession during the working lifecourse would be associated with cognitive function at 50 years and older. For men, a greater number of recessions experienced at ages 45-49 was associated with poorer cognitive function at age 50-74; for women, experiencing a greater number of recessions at 25-34 was associated with poorer cognitive function. In further analysis, the researchers suggested that the association in men appeared to be partly accounted for by an increased likelihood of job loss, while for women, the explanation was via an increased likelihood of job loss, less occupational stability, and downward occupational mobility.

In summing up, the researchers were careful to point out that the design of their study allowed them to explore these associations, but could not be definitive about causality.

What did the media say?

Both the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail reported the study pretty clearly, and both mentioned or linked to the journal that it was published in. The Daily Mail went further, however, and included comments from Dr Simon Ridley of Alzheimer’s Research UK, who usefully pointed out that the study doesn’t show that recessions cause cognitive decline, and also that as the study only assessed cognitive function at one point, it was not possible to explore how people’s cognitive functions changed over time as a result of their occupational experiences earlier in the lifecourse.

The Independent more fully explores the context for the current study, and even refers to some other work linking the recent economic downturn to suicide rates in 2008-09, for example. Their coverage tries to balance the likely effect of occupational uncertainty and well-researched outcomes such as mortality and mental health, with other less consistent effects (the examples they quote include crime, divorce and sex).

The bottom line.

The current study asks a very important question: how might the economic climate over which an individual has no control affect their later health and wellbeing? There were some very interesting results reported, though the caveats noted above in attributing causality or the single assessment of cognitive function mean that the results would need to be followed-up to allow more definitive conclusion. Although the focus on recession is timely, the data in the study on individual occupational factors (job loss, downward occupational mobility) ware perhaps more useful, and might tell us more about how our jobs affect us over the longer term.

Leist, A. K., Hessel, P., & Avendano, M. (2013). Do economic recessions during early and mid-adulthood influence cognitive function in older age? Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. doi:10.1136/jech-2013-20284

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