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OSAKA, Japan — Did your parents grow up poor, but you ended up better off financially as an adult? New research shows that this upward socioeconomic transition could pay major dividends for brain health in your senior years.

A fascinating study published in JAMA Network Open analyzed data on nearly 10,000 Japanese seniors over age 65. The researchers identified six distinct patterns of socioeconomic status (SES) across each participant’s lifetime based on factors like childhood economic situation, education level, career, and income later in life.

The six SES patterns were: upward mobility (started low but ended high), stable-high, upper-middle (consistently above average), lower-middle (consistently average), downward mobility (started high but ended low), and stable-low.

Those in the upward mobility group had the lowest risk of developing dementia as seniors. In fact, at age 65, upwardly mobile individuals could expect nearly two extra years (1.8 years) without dementia compared to those whose SES remained consistently average. Conversely, downward mobility displayed a connection with the largest losses in dementia-free years — around 1.4 fewer years without dementia after age 75 compared to the average group.

So, improving your socioeconomic standing from childhood to adulthood appears to build powerful brain reserves that delay dementia’s onset. However, falling from a higher class to a lower one has the opposite effect.

“Our finding that upward social mobility throughout a person’s life correlates with a prolonged period of dementia-free aging means that improving socioeconomic conditions could be a key to dementia prevention and healthier longevity,” the study’s lead author, Ryoto Sakaniwa, says in a media release.

upward mobility's effect on dementia
(CREDIT: R.Sakaniwa et al.)

What explains these cognitive impacts of changing economic circumstances? The researchers found diet, exercise, smoking, and other health behaviors played a big role for the upward and stable-low groups. Interestingly, however, only social factors like loneliness and lack of community ties mediated the heightened dementia risk for downwardly mobile individuals.

In other words, the psychological and social ramifications of economic decline seem to take a unique toll on brain health that goes beyond just physical habits. Losing your status and sense of self-worth may be profoundly demoralizing in a way that damages cognitive resilience over time.

On a positive note, the stable-high group who enjoyed lifelong economic advantages also had relatively low dementia rates, second only to upward mobility. Consistency counted for something – those with continually low resources fared worst of all socioeconomic groups.

The study authors theorize that upward mobility may delay cognitive aging by enhancing stress resistance and motivation. Successfully battling economic adversity early in life could instill mental fortitude that causes the brain to stay sharper decades later. Conversely, sliding down the socioeconomic ladder may induce chronic stress, anxiety, and depression that steadily corrode memory and thinking abilities over time. Without resources, status, and social support, those relegated to worsening poverty face elevated dementia risk.

Of course, no one chooses their childhood economic situation. Career and income trajectories often involve luck and societal factors beyond any individual’s control. However, this research underscores the profound, lasting impacts of both upward and downward socioeconomic mobility on cognitive destiny. If your economic status improved across your lifespan, that hard-won achievement could yield extra years of independent living without dementia’s constraints. Sadly, those who slipped down the economic ladder may pay a brain health penalty in old age.

StudyFinds Editor Chris Melore contributed to this report.

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