Women’s cognitive functioning past middle age may be affected by the degree of gender equality in the country in which they live, according to new research by the Columbia Robert E. Butler Aging Center at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. The findings are published online in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
“This research is a first attempt to shed light on important, but understudied, adverse consequences of gender inequality on women’s health in later life,” explains the lead author on the study, researcher Dr. Eric Bonsang, visiting research fellow at Columbia and associate professor of economics at University Paris-Dauphine. “It shows that women living in gender-equal countries have better cognitive test scores later in life than women living in gender-unequal societies. Moreover, in countries that became more gender-equal over time, women’s cognitive performance improved relative to men’s.”
The researchers analyzed cognitive performance data for participants between the ages of 50 and 93, drawn from multiple nationally representative surveys including the U.S. Health and Retirement Study, the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, and the World Health Organization Study on Global AGEing and Adult Health. Together, the surveys provided data for a total of 27 countries.
Dr. Bonsang and colleagues Dr. Vegard Skirbekk, professor at Columbia and senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, and Dr. Ursula Staudinger, director of the Columbia Aging Center, noted that the differences in men’s and women’s scores on cognitive tests varied widely across countries. In countries in Northern Europe, for example, women tend to outperform men on memory tests, while the opposite seems to be true in several Southern European countries.
[Photo: Dr. Ursula Staudinger]
“This observation triggered our curiosity to try to understand what could cause such variations across countries,” said Dr. Ursula Staudinger, who is also Robert N. Butler Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia.
While economic and socioeconomic factors likely play an important role, Drs. Bonsang, Skirbekk, and Staudinger also studied whether sociocultural factors such as attitudes about gender roles might also contribute to the variation in gender differences in cognitive performance around the globe. They hypothesized that women who live in a society with more traditional attitudes about gender roles would likely have less access to opportunities for education and employment and would, therefore, show lower cognitive performance later in life compared with men of the same age.
All of the surveys included an episodic memory task to measure cognitive performance. Participants responded to a list of 10 words and were asked to recall as many words as they could immediately; in some surveys, participants also were asked to recall the words after a delay. Additionally, some surveys included a task intended to assess executive function in which participants named as many animals as they could within one minute.
To gauge gender-role attitudes, the researchers focused on participants’ self-reported agreement with the statement, “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.”
Overall, the data showed considerable variability in gender differences in cognitive performance across countries. In some countries, women outperformed men; the female advantage in cognitive performance was highest in Sweden. In other countries, however, men outperformed women; the male advantage was highest in Ghana.
The researchers hypothesized that women in countries with less traditional attitudes were likely to have better cognitive performance later in life relative to women in more traditional countries. Dr. Bonsang and colleagues also noted that changes in gender-role attitudes within a country over time were associated with changes in women’s cognitive performance relative to men.
Although the data are correlational in nature, several more detailed analyses point toward a causal relationship. The analyses suggest that gender-role attitudes may play a notable role in important outcomes for women across different countries,” according to the researchers.
“These findings reinforce the need for policies aiming at reducing gender inequalities as we show that consequences go beyond the labor market and income inequalities,” says Dr. Bonsang. “It also shows how important it is to consider seemingly intangible influences, such as cultural attitudes and values, when trying to understand cognitive aging.”
The project was supported by the European Commission, a consortium of U.K. government departments, the Social Security Administration, and the U.S. National Institute on Aging.