Differing Effects of Education on Cognitive Decline in Diverse Elders with Low Versus High Educational Attainment

Zahodne, Laura B.; Stern, Yaakov; Manly, Jennifer J.

OBJECTIVE: In light of growing debate over whether and how early life educational experiences alter late-life cognitive trajectories, this study sought to more thoroughly investigate the relationship between educational attainment and rates of late-life cognitive decline in a racially, ethnically, and educationally diverse population. METHOD: Older adults (N = 3,435) in the community-based Washington Heights-Inwood Columbia Aging Project were administered neuropsychological tests of memory, language, visuospatial function, and processing speed at approximate 24-month intervals for up to 18 years. Second-order latent growth curves estimated direct and indirect (through income) effects of educational attainment on rates of global cognitive decline separately in individuals with low (0-8 years) and high (9-20 years) educational attainment. RESULTS: More years of education were associated with higher cognitive level and slower cognitive decline in individuals with low or high educational attainment. The association between having more than 9 years of education and exhibiting slower cognitive decline was fully mediated by income. Although having additional years of education up to 8 years was also associated with higher income, this did not explain associations between education and cognitive change in the low-education group. CONCLUSIONS: Early education (i.e., up to 8 years) may promote aspects of development during a sensitive period of childhood that protect against late-life cognitive decline independent of income. In contrast, later education (i.e., 9 years and beyond) is associated with higher income, which may influence late-life cognitive health through multiple, nonmutually exclusive pathways.


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February 23, 2018