Disparity in Educational Attainment Partially Explains Cognitive Gender Differences in Older Rural South Africans

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2020 Aug 13;75(7):e161-e173. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbaa035.


Objectives: Direction and magnitude of gender differences in late-life cognitive function are inextricably tied to sociocultural context. Our study evaluates education and literacy as primary drivers of gender equality in cognitive performance among middle-aged and older adults in rural South Africa.

Method: Data were collected on 1,938 participants aged 40-79 from Agincourt, South Africa. Cognitive function was measured via the Oxford Cognitive Screen-Plus, a tablet-based assessment with low literacy demands. Four cognitive domains were derived through confirmatory factor analysis: episodic memory, executive function, visual spatial, and language. Structural equation models tested domain-specific gender effects, incrementally controlling for demographic, education, health, and socioeconomic variables.

Results: In the model adjusting only for demographic factors, men outperformed women on executive function and visual-spatial domains. Adding education and literacy to the model revealed a robust female advantage in episodic memory, and reduced the magnitude of male advantage in executive function and visual and spatial by 47% and 42%, respectively. Health and socioeconomic factors did not alter patterns of gender associations in subsequent models.

Discussion: In this older South African cohort, gender inequality in cognitive performance was partially attributable to educational differences. Understanding biopsychosocial mechanisms that promote cognitive resilience in older women is critically important given the predominantly female composition of aging populations worldwide.

Keywords: Cognitive aging; Education; Gender differences; Literacy; Sub-Saharan Africa.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cognition*
  • Educational Status*
  • Female
  • Health Status Disparities*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Rural Population / statistics & numerical data
  • Sex Factors
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • South Africa / epidemiology