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How pay cuts could be bad for your brain

James Leggate

A loss in income doesn’t just hurt your wallet — it could also have long-term impacts on your brain, according to a new study.

The study, which was published this month in the journal Neurology, found that income volatility in formative earning years was associated with worse cognitive function and brain integrity later in life.

Researchers included more than 3,200 Americans who were age 23-35 at the start of the study in 1990. Researchers followed them for 20 years, until 2010, having the participants report their annual pre-tax household income every three to five years.

The study broke the participants into groups based on whether they’d had one annual income drop of 25 percent or more, had two or more such drops or never had such a significant income loss. Then, researchers had the participants take thinking and memory tests.

They found that people who’d had two or more income drops scored an average of 2.8% lower than people who’d never had income drops. For comparison, a year of aging typically lowers a score by just 0.53 percent, according to the lead author on the study, Leslie Grasset of the Inserm Research Center in Bordeaux, France.

It also took participants with more income drops more time to finish tasks on the tests. When some of the participants were given MRI brain scans at the beginning and end of the study, researchers said people with two or more income drops had smaller total brain volume than those with none. And those with one or more income drops had “reduced connectivity” between parts of the brain.

With more and more people working in gig economy jobs, there could be an increased number of people facing dramatic changes in their financial circumstances.

Adini Zeki Al Hazzouri, an assistant professor at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors, said income volatility is at a record level since the early 1980s.

“Our results provide evidence that higher income volatility during peak earning years are associated with worse brain aging in middle age,” Zeki Al Hazzouri said.


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