The greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression may wreak lasting neurological damage on a generation of Americans who lost jobs, homes, and even marriages — with steeper levels of cognitive decline as they age.

Older, wizened Americans recognized trouble on Sept. 28, 2008, as Congressmen rejected a massive Wall Street bailout, voting one by one as the Dow Jones Industrial Average continued to slide, thus beginning the Great Recession. Although Washington later approved controversial bailouts and fiscal stimuli, macroeconomic malaise blossomed millions of times over as personal recessions deeply ingrained in the mind.

Now, economic recovery continues in the United States with record corporate profits and broad public support for raising the federal minimum wage to more than $10 per hour, restoring the wage floor to pre-inflation 1968 levels. However, painful repercussions from the past half-dozen years of recession and recovery continue with downward career mobility and lowered expectations for millions of Americans, with many European populations faring worse throughout the 28-country economic block.

Those personal recessions may later hit middle-aged people the hardest, investigators from the University of Luxembourg find. In analyzing data from more than 12,000 Europeans throughout 11 countries in the European Union, investigator Anja Leist finds recessionary troubles most damaging to middle-aged men in their mid- to late-forties and women ages 25-44.

“Our study was motivated by previous evidence that working conditions are associated with later-life cognitive function and decline,” Leist and her colleagues wrote in a study published Wednesday. “Our findings provide evidence that economic recessions experienced at vulnerable periods in midlife are associated with decreased later-life cognitive function and that part of this association may operate through the link of recessions with working conditions and career trajectory.”

When hit by economic setbacks at this most vulnerable point in career trajectory, people in early middle-age suffer a hampered ability to build “cognitive reserve” — the neurological equivalent to a retirement savings account.

Despite some beliefs held by conservatives and libertarians, the investigators assumed for the purpose of study that individuals wage little control over large macroeconomic forces, meaning that people across a broad spectrum of intellectual functioning would be harmed by massive shocks to the economy, such as the recent global recession. Leist and her colleagues analyzed data from study subjects assessed for cognitive ability in 2004 through 2005, and then again in 2006 through 2007, to determine whether past recessions had affected them as they aged into retirement.

Those results they linked to detailed work histories collected retrospectively between 2008 and 2009, and analyzed along with factors, such as self-rated health, material deprivation, occupational status, self-reported language and math skills, educational attainment, and even the number of books in the home. Among men, those in their mid- to late-forties had lived through an average of 0.73 recessions, whereas women, between the ages of 35 and 44, had lived through 1.33.

In the analysis, men and women who'd endured economic recession scored lower on cognitive tests than others, suggesting effects lasting a lifetime.

Source: Leist, Anja K., Hessel, Philipp, Avendano, Mauricio. Do Economic Recessions During Early And Mid-Adulthood Influence Cognitive Function In Older Age? British Medical Journal. 2013.