A Drop in Income Might Scramble Your Brain

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That experiencing a decline in income might upset somebody is a no-brainer, but new research from the American Academy of Neurology suggests that it might literally affect the brain in negative ways.

According to a paper called “Relation between 20-year income volatility and brain health in midlife,” published Wednesday in Neurology, the academy’s journal, new research shows that “Higher income volatility and more income drops [are]…associated with worse microstructural integrity of total brain and total white matter.”

In non-scientific terms, this means that those who experienced the most significant declines and overall changes in income in the group studied (adults 23 to 35 years old, considered to be in their peak earning years) scored more poorly on a variety of thinking and memory tests when they grew older than those whose income remained stable. The lower-scoring group also took longer to complete some tasks and showed reduced connectivity between different areas of the brain.

In other words, if someone’s income drops or fluctuates noticeably at a younger age, his or her brain functions may suffer later.

The study involved a racially diverse population of some 3,287 people enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) program supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. The results remained the same after researchers adjusted for various factors known to affect cognitive skills, including high blood pressure, education level and physical activity.

Though the study followed subjects through the years of the recession in the late 2000s, incomes are still declining in some parts of the country. These are 10 cities where incomes are shrinking the fastest.

There are several possible explanations for the relationship between financial problems and brain health, according to study author Leslie Grasset, Ph.D., of the Inserm Research Center in Bordeaux. For instance, Grasset said, “[P]eople with lower or unstable income may have reduced access to high quality health care which may result in worse management of diseases like diabetes, or management of unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and drinking.”

In addition, it is well-established that stress and other things can lead to memory loss and brain shrinkage.


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