The Role of Early-Life Educational Quality and Literacy in Explaining Racial Disparities in Cognition in Late Life

Published in: Journal of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences, v. 70, no. 4, July 2015, p. 557-567

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2014

by Shannon Sisco, Alden L. Gross, Regina A. Shih, Bonnie C. Sachs, M. Maria Glymour, Katherine J. Bangen, Andreana Benitez, Jeannine Skinner, Brooke C. Schneider, Jennifer J. Manly

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OBJECTIVES: Racial disparities in late-life cognition persist even after accounting for educational attainment. We examined whether early-life educational quality and literacy in later life help explain these disparities. METHOD: We used longitudinal data from the Washington Heights-Inwood Columbia Aging Project (WHICAP). Educational quality (percent white students; urban/rural school; combined grades in classroom) was operationalized using canonical correlation analysis. Late-life literacy (reading comprehension and ability, writing) was operationalized using confirmatory factor analysis. We examined whether these factors attenuated race-related differences in late-life cognition. RESULTS: The sample consisted of 1,679U.S.-born, non-Hispanic, community-living adults aged 65–102 (71% black, 29% white; 70% women). Accounting for educational quality and literacy reduced disparities by 29% for general cognitive functioning, 26% for memory, and 32% for executive functioning but did not predict differences in rate of cognitive change. DISCUSSION: Early-life educational quality and literacy in late life explain a substantial portion of race-related disparities in late-life cognitive function.

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