The Effect of Childhood Socioeconomic Position and Social Mobility on Cognitive Function and Change Among Older Adults: A Comparison Between the United States and England

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2021 Jun 8;76(Suppl 1):S51-S63. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbaa138.


Objectives: This study aims to examine the relationship between childhood socioeconomic position (SEP) and cognitive function in later life within nationally representative samples of older adults in the United States and England, investigate whether these effects are mediated by later-life SEP, and determine whether social mobility from childhood to adulthood affects cognitive function and decline.

Method: Using data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and the English Longitudinal Survey of Ageing (ELSA), we examined the relationships between measures of SEP, cognitive performance and decline using individual growth curve models.

Results: High childhood SEP was associated with higher cognitive performance at baseline in both cohorts and did not affect the rate of decline. This benefit dissipated after adjusting for education and adult wealth in the United States. Respondents with low childhood SEP, above median education, and high adult SEP had better cognitive performance at baseline than respondents with a similar childhood background and less upward mobility in both countries.

Discussion: These findings emphasize the impact of childhood SEP on cognitive trajectories among older adults. Upward mobility may partially compensate for disadvantage early in life but does not protect against cognitive decline.

Keywords: Cognition; Cross-national comparison; Early origins of health; Education; Life course analysis.

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences* / economics
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences* / psychology
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences* / statistics & numerical data
  • Cognition*
  • Cognitive Aging*
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison
  • England
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Prospective Studies
  • Social Mobility* / statistics & numerical data
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • United States