Gendered life courses and cognitive functioning in later life: the role of context-specific gender norms and lifetime employment

Eur J Ageing. 2023 Mar 30;20(1):7. doi: 10.1007/s10433-023-00751-4.


With increasing life expectancy, dementia poses an epidemiological challenge. As a cure has not been developed, the investigation into preventive factors becomes pivotal. Previous research emphasizes the cognitively stimulating and socio-emotional benefits of lifetime employment, but research on heterogeneous patterns across social groups and societal contexts remains sparse. Sociological approaches have a promising potential to provide insights into health inequalities and can contribute to the study of this major societal challenge. We investigate the influence of previous employment biographies on cognitive functioning for men and women aged 50 to 75 in 19 European countries, using longitudinal and retrospective information from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe. We link individual information on employment biographies and cognitive functioning to contextual measures of gender norms, using aggregated agreement rates to both men's and women's role in employment and family. We find that previous employment affects cognitive functioning men and women differently. Part-time employment is beneficial for women's cognitive functioning, but not for men's. Traditional gender norms are associated with lower levels of cognitive functioning for both genders and moderate the linkage between previous employment and cognitive functioning. In contexts with more traditional gender norms, men's part-time employment is associated with lower and women's part-time employment with higher cognitive functioning. We conclude that employment and non-employment participation can, depending on characteristics of individuals and contexts, benefit or hinder the life-course accumulation of cognitive reserve, and those with norm-deviating behaviour are disadvantaged.

Keywords: Cognitive ageing; Europe; Gender; Gender norms; Life course; Lifetime employment.