Education as the great equalizer? Racial and ethnic differences in the effect of education on cognitive impairment in later life


Though evidence suggests that the prevalence of cognitive impairment has declined, there still exists a disproportionate burden of ill cognitive health for people of color. In this paper, we test two alternative mechanisms to explain the interactive effect of education and race/ethnicity on cognitive impairment risk: the minority poverty and diminishing returns hypotheses. Drawing on data from the 2012 wave of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) (n = 8093), we estimate logistic regression models to determine differential effects of education on cognitive impairment. We find that non-Hispanic black and Mexican American older adults have higher odds of being cognitively impaired compared to whites, though the ethnic difference (whites vs. Mexican Americans) is mediated by education. Further, we find that while high levels of education are protective against cognitive impairment at older ages, it is more protective for non-Hispanic blacks than for whites and more protective for whites than Mexican Americans. Lastly, we find that racial/ethnic disparities are widest at lower levels of education, consistent with the minority poverty hypothesis. We conclude that the results herein highlight the importance of attending to how factors that are protective for cognitive functioning (e.g., education) may operate differently across racial and ethnic groups.


Sociology and Anthropology

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© 2019 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).


Cognitive functioning, Cognitive impairment, Education, Racial/ethnic differences

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Geriatrics (Switzerland)