Comparison of sex differences in cognitive function in older adults between high- and middle-income countries and the role of education: a population-based multicohort study

Age Ageing. 2023 Feb 1;52(2):afad019. doi: 10.1093/ageing/afad019.


Background: The extent to which education explains variations in sex differences in cognitive function between countries at different levels of economic development is unknown. We examined the role of education in sex differences in four cognitive domains in high- and middle-income countries.

Methods: Analyses were based on 70,846 participants, aged 60 years and older, in cohort studies from a high-income (United States) and four middle-income countries (Mexico, Brazil, China, and India). We used weighted linear models to allow nationally-representative comparisons of sex differences in orientation, memory, attention, and fluency using the United States as the reference, before and after adjustment for education, and after stratification by education.

Results: Females had lower levels of education than males in all countries, particularly in India. Before adjustment for education, sex differences in orientation and attention in all middle-income countries, memory in Brazil, China, and India, and fluency in India were less favourable to females than in the United States (P < 0.010). For example, females outperformed males in memory in the United States (mean difference [male-female scores] = -0.26 standard deviations [95% CI -0.30, -0.22]) but not in China (0.15 [0.09, 0.21]) or India (0.16 [0.13, 0.19]). Adjustment for education attenuated these sex differences. In analyses stratified by education, there were minimal sex differences in the high education group in all countries.

Conclusion: Education contributes to larger female disadvantages in cognitive function at older ages in middle-income countries compared with the United States. Gender equity in education is an important target to reduce sex disparities in cognitive function globally.

Keywords: cognition; cognitive aging; cognitive function; comparative study; health inequalities; older people.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Cognition
  • Developing Countries*
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Income
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • United States