Women’s cognitive ageing climaxes in gender-equal countries

New research led by Columbia University using multiple datasets, including those gathered through three comprehensive EU-funded projects focused on ageing, has highlighted how women''s cognitive functioning improves in countries that emphasise the importance of gender equality.

Researchers from Columbia University''s Mailman school of Public Health have examined the relationship between gender-role attitudes and women’s and men’s cognitive function in later ages from a socio-cultural perspective.

Previous studies had focused more on socio-economic factors and economic development which certainly led to a lack of opportunities and poor cognitive performances by women over the course of their lives. However, hitherto, the impact of gender-role attitudes on women’s cognitive performance in later life remained fully unexplored. ‘This research is a first attempt to shed light on important, but understudied, adverse consequences of gender inequality on women''s health in later life,’ highlighted researcher and lead author Eric Bonsang, PhD, of University Paris-Dauphine and Columbia University''s Mailman School of Public Health.

Researchers used cognitive performance scores from surveys on 226 661 individuals from 27 countries aged 50 to 93 and born between 1920 and 1959. Various tasks included a list of 10 words whereby participants were asked to recall as many words as they could immediately or after some delay, and in some tasks, participants were asked to respond to the following statement: ‘When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.’

Researchers wanted to find associations that women who live in a society with more traditional attitudes about gender roles would be more likely to have less access to opportunities for education and employment and would, therefore, show lower cognitive performance later in life compared with men of the same age.

The findings published in the journal ‘Psychological Science’, indeed showed huge variability across countries with cultural attitudes towards gender roles influencing gender cognitive performance and outcome. ‘It shows that women living in gender-equal countries have better cognitive test scores later in life than women living in gender-unequal societies. Moreover, in countries that became more gender-equal over time, women''s cognitive performance improved relative to men''s,’ commented Bonsang.

These variations across countries could now be better understood thanks to the data gathered. The female advantage in cognitive performance was highest in Sweden, a country renowned for adopting more modern attitudes to gender equality, as opposed to other and more traditional countries such as Ghana where men outperformed women. ‘These findings reinforce the need for policies aiming at reducing gender inequalities as we show that the consequences go beyond the labour market and income inequalities,’ underlines Bonsang.

Nevertheless, as the recent furor in the UK over the huge disparity in pay between the male and female top BBC earners reveals, cultural attitudes and values in countries that are seen to be much more gender-equal still struggle to offer complete parity between the sexes.

Researchers used surveys from the US Health and Retirement Study, the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, and the World Health Organization Study on Global AGEing and Adult Health. The researchers also used comprehensive EU ageing data collected from the EU-funded FP7 SHARE-PREP, SHARE-LEAP and SHARE M4 projects, all of which have now ended in 2009, 2010 and 2014 respectively.

For more information, please see:
SHARE-PREP project page on CORDIS
SHARE_LEAP project page on CORDIS
SHARE_M4 project page on CORDIS

last modification: 2017-08-05 17:15:02

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