Neighborhood Age Structure and Cognitive Function in a Nationally-Representative Sample of Older Adults in the U.S.

Published in: Social Science & Medicine Volume 174 (February 2017), pages 149-158. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.12.005

Posted on RAND.org on August 08, 2017

by Esther M. Friedman, Regina A. Shih, Mary Ellen Slaughter, Margaret M. Weden, Kathleen A. Cagney

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Access further information on this document at Social Science & Medicine Volume 174 (February 2017)

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Recent evidence suggests that living in a neighborhood with a greater percentage of older adults is associated with better individual health, including lower depression, better self-rated health, and a decreased risk of overall mortality. However, much of the work to date suffers from four limitations. First, none of the U.S.-based studies examine the association at the national level. Second, no studies have examined three important hypothesized mechanisms — neighborhood socioeconomic status and neighborhood social and physical characteristics — which are significantly correlated with both neighborhood age structure and health. Third, no U.S. study has longitudinally examined cognitive health trajectories. We build on this literature by examining nine years of nationally-representative data from the Health and Retirement Study (2002–2010) on men and women aged 51 and over linked with Census data to examine the relationship between the percentage of adults 65 and older in a neighborhood and individual cognitive health trajectories. Our results indicate that living in a neighborhood with a greater percentage of older adults is related to better individual cognition at baseline but we did not find any significant association with cognitive decline. We also explored potential mediators including neighborhood socioeconomic status, perceived neighborhood cohesion and perceived neighborhood physical disorder. We did not find evidence that neighborhood socioeconomic status explains this relationship; however, there is suggestive evidence that perceived cohesion and disorder may explain some of the association between age structure and cognition. Although more work is needed to identify the precise mechanisms, this work may suggest a potential contextual target for public health interventions to prevent cognitive impairment.

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