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Shortly before our nuptials in the spring of 1980, I informed my betrothed that it was time I boldly cast off the shackles of my $50-a-week editor’s job at the local anarchist newspaper and seek my fortune as a full-time freelance writer. I’d cultivated assorted contacts both locally and nationally, landed some assignments, and figured the odds of cobbling together enough gigs to bring in maybe $400 a month — riches almost beyond our wildest dreams — were better than even.

I should point out that this occurred eons before cell phone, internet, and cable costs became de rigueur living expenses; it was a time when the local “Peoples’ Clinic” rendered health insurance unnecessary. You could secure without much effort a decent apartment for $150 a month; recruit a housemate or two and you could trim your cost of living to the point where paid work seemed almost optional. Fancying ourselves a couple of footloose bohemians, we saw no reason to scratch and claw our way up some rickety corporate ladder. We’d carve out a life on our own terms.

A couple of months later, behind on the rent, My Lovely Wife suggested rather pointedly that I should seek out regular employment. She was toiling at minimum wage in the basement of a tailor’s shop and thought it only reasonable that I share in the mirthless joy of the workaday world rather than spend leisurely afternoons at my sun-dappled desk seeking journalistic credibility at 10 cents a word.

The bookstore where I landed paid the kingly wage of $4 an hour and afforded me enough time every morning to continue pitching stories and cranking out copy. And while those efforts a few years later brought a job offer from a local alternative weekly, the pay was only slightly more than what I was making selling books. The salaries improved over the years as I climbed that ladder MLW and I once vowed to avoid, but my earnings rose and fell erratically as I shuttled between publications and positions — as well as during intermittent dalliances with the freelance life.

We managed to survive, as most people do, the windfalls and droughts of personal finance: Our two kids never went hungry, we never lacked for a roof over our heads, and we developed a completely unexpected appreciation for our country’s generous bankruptcy laws. But at no time prior to my current gig could MLW and I admit to any measure of conventional affluence, a fact that struck me when I learned about a study presented last week at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.

A team of researchers from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health reported that workers who have endured a history of low-wage jobs are more likely than their more affluent counterparts to experience accelerated cognitive decline as they grow old. While there’s plenty of evidence linking a low income to depression, obesity, and hypertension — all of which are risk factors for poor brain function — lead study author Katrina Kezios, PhD, argues that her team is the first to specifically connect chronic low-wage employment with a more rapid descent into dementia.

“Our research provides new evidence that sustained exposure to low wages during peak earning years is associated with accelerated memory decline later in life,” says Kezios. “This association was observed in our primary sample as well as in a validation cohort.”

Analyzing data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, Kezios and her colleagues tracked the earnings history of nearly 3,000 individuals over the course of 50 years. They then reviewed clinical evidence of memory dysfunction among that cohort over the next 12 years and concluded that workers who never earned more than two-thirds of the federal median wage during their working lives found their memory lagging about a year earlier than those who always earned above-average wages.

It’s a pretty good argument for raising the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for the past 13 years, says senior study author Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, PhD. “Our findings suggest that social policies that enhance the financial well-being of low-wage workers may be especially beneficial for cognitive health,” she notes. “Future work should rigorously examine the number of dementia cases and excess years of cognitive aging that could be prevented under different hypothetical scenarios that would increase the minimum hourly wage.”

While congressional Republicans continue to stymie any legislative efforts to that end, a number of major cities have moved to raise the minimum wage within their jurisdictions. That’s good news for folks trying to make ends meet now and — if Kezios’ findings prove accurate — keep their brains functioning well into their old age.

Having somehow drifted beyond our youthful bohemian penury into the ranks of the petite bourgeoisie in recent years, MLW and I are left to ponder whether our current good fortune will negate our past financial distress and allow us to retain our marbles well into our dotage. Or will other factors — stress, diet, exercise, and the rest — overrule everything?

There’s no way of knowing, of course. But the latent bohemian in me doubts that money exerts that much neurological influence. While a little dough sure comes in handy when the bills come due, MLW will be the first to tell you that it’s never done much to improve my thinking.

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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