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Member Research and Reports

Columbia: Drops in Income May Not Only Hurt the Wallet, They May Harm the Brain

Young adults who experience annual income drops of 25 percent or more may be more at risk of having thinking problems and reduced brain health in middle age, according to a study in Neurology®.

“Income volatility is at a record level and there is growing evidence that it may have pervasive effects on health,” said senior author Dr. Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “Our study followed participants in the U.S. over 30 years, including the recession time in the late 2000s. Our results show that higher income volatility during peak earning years is associated with worse brain aging in middle age.”

The study involved 3,287 people who were 23 to 35 years old and enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. Participants reported their annual pre-tax household income every three to five years from 1990 to 2010.

Researchers examined how often income dropped as well as the percentage of change in income for each participant who were given thinking and memory tests that measured how well they completed tasks and how much time it took to complete them.

People with two or more income drops had worse performances in completing tasks than people with no income drops. Participants with more income drops also scored worse on how much time it took to complete tasks.

Compared to people with no income drops, people with two or more income drops had smaller total brain volume. They also showed fewer connections between different areas of the brain.

While the study does not prove that drops in income cause reduced brain health, it does reinforce the need for more studies examining the role that social and financial factors play in brain aging.

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