Gender Differences in Cognition Among Older Adults in China

Published in: Journal of Human Resources, v. 47, no. 4, Dec. 2014, p. 951-971

Posted on RAND.org on February 17, 2016

by Xiaoyan Lei, Xiaoyan Lei, Yuqing Hu, John McArdle, James P. Smith, Yaohui Zhao

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In this paper, we model gender differences in cognitive ability in China using a new sample of middle-aged and older Chinese respondents. Modeled after the American Health and Retirement Study (HRS), the CHARLS Pilot survey respondents are 45 years and older in two quite distinct provinces--Zhejiang, a high-growth industrialized province on the East Coast, and Gansu, a largely agricultural and poor province in the West--in a sense new and old China. Our cognition measures proxy for two different dimensions of adult cognition--episodic memory and intact mental status. On both measures, Chinese women score much lower than do Chinese men, a gender difference that grows among older Chinese cohorts. We relate both these cognition scores to schooling, urban residence, family and community levels of economic resources, and height. We find that cognition is more closely related to mean community resources than to family resources, especially for women, suggesting that in traditional poor Chinese communities there are strong economic incentives to favor boys at the expense of girls. We also find that these gender differences in cognitive ability have been steadily decreasing across birth cohorts as the economy of China grew rapidly. Among cohorts of young adults in China, there is no longer any gender disparity in cognitive ability. This parallels the situation in the United States where cognition scores of adult women actually exceed those of adult men.

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