Cognitive disparities: the impact of the Great Depression and cumulative inequality on later-life cognitive function

Hale, J. M.

Demography, 54, 2125-2158 (2017)


Schlagworte: USA, ageing, economic recession, health


Population aging has driven a spate of recent research on later-life cognitive
function. Greater longevity increases the lifetime risk of memory diseases that com-
promise the cognitive abilities vital to well-being. Alzheimer’s disease, thought to be
the most common underlying pathology for elders’ cognitive dysfunction (Willis and
Hakim 2013), is already the sixth leading cause of death in the United States
(Alzheimer’s Association 2016). Understanding social determinants of pathological
cognitive decline is key to crafting interventions, but evidence is inconclusive for how
social factors interact over the life course to affect cognitive function. I study whether
early-life exposure to the Great Depression is directly associated with later-life cogni-
tive function, influences risky behaviors over the life course, and/or accumulates with
other life-course disadvantages. Using growth curve models to analyze the Health and
Retirement Study, I find that early-life exposure to the Great Depression is associated
with fluid cognition, controlling for intervening factors—evidence for a critical period
model. I find little support for a social trajectory model. Disadvantage accumulates over
the life course to predict worse cognitive function, providing strong evidence for a
cumulative inequality model.