Racial Disparities in Cognitive Performance in Mid- and Late Adulthood: Analyses of Two Cohort Studies

Objectives: To examine whether the attenuation of racial disparities observed in physical health outcomes at older ages can be extended to cognitive outcomes in mid- and late-life samples. Design: Cross-sectional associations between race and cognitive functioning were examined as a function of age. Setting: The National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS) and the Washington Heights-Inwood Columbia Aging Project (WHICAP). Participants: Non-Hispanic African American or white individuals aged 40 and older (MIDUS; n = 3875, 10.5% African American) and non-Hispanic African American or white individuals aged 65 and older without a diagnosis of dementia (WHICAP; n = 2,729, 53.8% African American). Measurements: Composite scores of executive functioning and episodic memory. Results: Independent of main effects of age, birth cohort, sex, education, and chronic health conditions, significant interactions between age and race indicated that racial disparities in episodic memory and executive functioning were larger at younger than older age in both samples. Conclusion: Attenuation of racial inequalities in older age can be extended to cognitive outcomes, which probably reflects selective survival. Research on cognitive disparities or on race-specific causes of cognitive outcomes in old age must incorporate corrections for selective survival if the goal is to identify causal predictors of cognitive outcomes rather than merely statistical predictors.