MPIDR Working Paper

Understanding cognitive impairment in the U.S. through the lenses of intersectionality and (un)conditional cumulative (dis)advantage

MPIDR Working Paper WP-2022-029, 83 pages.
Rostock, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (November 2022)
Open Access


Grounded in theories of intersectionality and cumulative (dis)advantage, we develop complementary formalizations of (dis)advantage to study disparities in cognitive impairment: Conditional Cumulative (Dis)Advantage that reflects inequalities in outcomes and Unconditional Cumulative (Dis)Advantage that additionally accounts for inequalities in opportunities. We study the properties of these formalizations and show that cumulative disadvantage does not imply cumulative advantage. Using these formalizations and incidence-based multistate models, we analyze the Health and Retirement Study to assess how racial/ethnic, nativity, gender, early-life adversity, and educational (dis)advantages accumulate into three important metrics for characterizing later-life cognitive impairment—lifetime risk, mean age at first impairment, and cognitive health expectancies. We find that the benefits and penalties of one (dis)advantage depend on positionality on the other axes of inequality. Black women and Latinas experience Conditional Cumulative Disadvantage in cognitive impairment: they are penalized more from having lower education than Whites. White men experience Conditional Cumulative Advantage: they benefit more from higher education than Blacks or Latinx. However, when accounting for racial/ethnic inequities in educational opportunities, results ubiquitously show Unconditional Cumulative Disadvantage. Our formalization provides a mathematical grounding for cumulative (dis)advantage, and the empirical results comprehensively document the multi-dimensional, intersecting axes of stratification that perpetuate inequities in cognitive impairment.

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.