The role of early-life educational quality and literacy in explaining racial disparities in cognition in late life

Shannon Sisco, Alden L. Gross, Regina A. Shih, Bonnie C. Sachs, M. Maria Glymour, Katherine J. Bangen, Andreana Benitez, Jeannine Skinner, Brooke C. Schneider, Jennifer J. Manly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

91 Scopus citations


Objectives. Racial disparities in late-life cognition persist even after accounting for educational attainment. We examined whether early-life educational quality and literacy in later life help explain these disparities. Method. We used longitudinal data from the Washington Heights-Inwood Columbia Aging Project (WHICAP). Educational quality (percent white students; urban/rural school; combined grades in classroom) was operationalized using canonical correlation analysis. Late-life literacy (reading comprehension and ability, writing) was operationalized using confirmatory factor analysis. We examined whether these factors attenuated race-related differences in late-life cognition. Results. The sample consisted of 1,679U.S.-born, non-Hispanic, community-living adults aged 65-102 (71% black, 29% white; 70% women). Accounting for educational quality and literacy reduced disparities by 29% for general cognitive functioning, 26% for memory, and 32% for executive functioning but did not predict differences in rate of cognitive change. Discussion. Early-life educational quality and literacy in late life explain a substantial portion of race-related disparities in late-life cognitive function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)557-567
Number of pages11
JournalJournals of Gerontology - Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2015


  • Cognition
  • Life events and contexts
  • Minority and diverse populations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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