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Member Research and Reports

South Carolina: Researchers Examine Early Educational Experiences and Trajectories of Cognitive Functioning Among Mid-Life and Older U.S. Adults

Dr. Katrina Walsemann, associate professor of health promotion, education, and behavior at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health, has collaborated with Dr. Jennifer Ailshire, assistant professor of gerontology and sociology at the University of Southern California, to complete a study on early educational experiences and trajectories of cognitive functioning among mid-life and older U.S. adults. Their paper was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

“Educational attainment is often considered the most important protective factor against cognitive impairment and dementia,” Dr. Walsemann says. “Yet significant variation in early educational experiences exists among mid-life and older U.S. adults.”

With this study, the researchers analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study along with information on respondents’ early educational experiences collected in the 2015 and 2017 HRS Life History Mail Survey. They looked at whether school context, educational content, and academic ability were associated with trajectories of cognitive functioning and whether educational attainment explains this relationship.

After restricting their sample to participants who provided data on cognitive function at least once between 1998 and 2014 and attended primary school or higher, they ended up with a sample of 9,565 respondents who provided more than 62,000 person-period observations. The authors’ analysis revealed that school context, educational content, and academic ability were significantly associated with level of cognitive functioning, but not to rate of cognitive decline.

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