"We found that gender equality is a central reason why women retain good brain function after they have passed 50 years," says Vegard Skirbekk, researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
Together with two other researchers, Skirbekk investigated the possible reasons why women in Northern Europe performed better on cognitive tests after the age of 50 than women elsewhere in the world. Their findings are published in the research journal Psychological Science.
They studied the results from comparable cognitive tests of over 200,000 people aged 50 to 93 years in 27 countries.
"In this study, we have focused on the causal link between cultural inequalities in gender roles between societies and women's relative cognitive functions," says Skirbekk.
He emphasises that brain function is a combination of biology, genes and sociocultural differences.
“Cognitive function can be trained throughout life. In a gender equal country, women will have access to education and participation in the workplace. This is very important for keeping the brain active throughout life," says Skirbekk.
Leave the comfort zone
Other researchers have also found that higher education and work participation strengthens brain functions and protects against diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
“Complicated and demanding work tasks can help to maintain cognitive functions and develop the brain. It's good to step out of the comfort zone," says Skirbekk.
In the analyses, Skirbekk and his colleagues show the relation between scores in a memory test and the participants' answer to the question: “Should men have more right to work than women when there are few jobs?” The answer should reveal the respondents' attitude to gender roles and gender equality.
"We found a surprisingly clear connection between the level of gender equality in the countries and scores in this test," says Skirbekk (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: The relation between scores in a memory test and the respondents' attitude to gender roles and gender equality. Source: Psychological Science July 2017: As You Sow, So Shall You Reap: Gender-Role Attitudes and Late-Life Cognition
Reap what you sow
Skirbekk points out that men in gender equal countries are also good at maintaining good cognitive functions in later life.
"However, the differences between women in gender equal countries and women in countries with traditional gender roles are greater than the differences between men in these countries," says Skirbekk.
In some countries, especially in the Northern European countries that participated in the study, the women scored higher than men in the test did. Swedish women scored the highest. In other countries, men scored the highest. The lowest scores for women were in Ghana.
Link to religion
The researchers also found that in countries with a predominantly Protestant religion, women had higher scores than the women in non-Protestant countries.
"Our findings emphasise the importance of reducing differences in gender equality attitudes, not least with regards to ageing of the population. The consequences of lack of education and unemployment are serious in a life-long perspective,” says Skirbekk.
Eric Bonsang from Université Paris-Dauphine and Ursula M Staudinger from the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University co-wrote the published article with Vegard Skirbekk.
Bonsang E, Skirbekk V, Staudinger UM; As You Sow, So Shall You Reap: Gender-Role Attitudes and Late-Life Cognition. Psychological Science 2017.