Gender differences in cognitive abilities among the elderly poor of (Javier Olivera and Rafael Novella)
The decline of cognitive abilities in old age is a well-documented fact in human biology, which has also been demonstrated by large-scale, representative household surveys aimed at assessing the well-being of the elderly. As any other indicator of accumulated human capital, cognitive ability depreciates at a certain rate, although individuals can take measures to retard or smooth cognitive depreciation. Working is an important protective measure against the accelerated decline of cognition in old-age. In addition, factors such as educational attainment, health, and nutritional status help explain the stock of cognitive abilities and the rate of decline. Some studies suggest that in developed countries there are no significant gender differences in cognitive functioning, while in developing countries there are important differences to the detriment of women. The usual explanation for this disparity is rooted in important gender differences in educational attainment and nutrition in early childhood. These results lend support to calls for equalizing education opportunities for and girls as a means to reduce disparities in cognition in old age.
The relative size of the elderly population is growing in many countries because of the demographic transition, and the share of elderly women is also growing for biological reasons. This represents a growing public health problem. In addition to affecting elderly individuals themselves, cognitive decline indirectly affects other family members who have to allocate resources and time to take care of the elderly. In this scenario, individuals with larger cognitive impairments might represent a burden on their families. For poor households, this might be particularly detrimental given tight budget constraints.
The literature that focuses on gender differences in old-age cognition in developing countries and rural areas is scarce. It is possible that among the poor, gender differences in educational attainment, health, and nutrition indicators are less evident as everyone in this group is in the bottom part of the distribution. But another possibility is that gender differences in education and in the other variables are even more pronounced if cultural or economic reasons for favoring boys over girls are more entrenched among the poor. In this paper we assess this empirical question by looking at the gender disparity in cognitive functioning among elderly poor Peruvians from the Survey of Health and Well-Being of the Elderly (ESBAM). This is a recent survey of the poor age 65–80, which includes questions on cognition and a large set of socio-demographic and subjective and objective health measures.
This paper contributes to the empirical literature on gender differences in old-age cognitive abilities by controlling for a comprehensive set of confounders, such as schooling, sex, age, urbanity, ethnic group, community-level unobserved characteristics, and objective and subjective health indicators. After controlling for these attributes, we find that females perform better than males in some cognitive measurements, including episodic memory (measured with immediate and delayed word recall) and command (a series of commands to be orderly followed by the interviewed), but perform worse in orientation and drawing ability. In an overall measure of mental intactness that includes orientation, command, and drawing scores females perform worse than males. Furthermore, we find that educational attainment, other variables related to childhood, are current nutritional status are very important in determining the level of cognitive functioning. We present evidence of differential effects of education by sex, meaning that education tends to boost the cognitive abilities of females more than males.
Javier Olivera Angulo is a Research Associate at the University of Luxembourg.