The CoGenT3 Study: Cognition and Gender Trends in Three American Generations

Shana D. Stites, PsyD, MS, MA

University of Pennsylvania

Jason D. Flatt, PhD, MPH

University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Project Description:

As men and women age, they differ in how they protect their cognitive health, reduce their risk for cognitive decline, and manage cognitive changes. For example, higher engagement in self-improvement among men has been shown to correspond to higher levels of cognitive functioning, while among women, higher intellectual–cultural activity relate to better verbal ability and memory. Many studies also show gender differences in how older adults self-report on their memory, perform on administered cognitive tests, and manage the functional impairments that can accompany cognitive impairment. These associations have been documented over many decades. The consistency of findings underscores the salience of gender’s impact on cognition in older adults. It also raises a critical question: How have these associations changed over time?

Gender is defined by social roles, behaviors, and beliefs that change over time with culture. What it means to be a “woman” today, for example, is different from what it meant in 1970 or 1920. National political and societal factors differentially impact a person’s pursuit of education or career choice. For example, in the Greatest Generation (born 1915 to 1927) and Silent Generation (born 1928 to 1945), men were more likely than women to earn a post-secondary degree. But, in the Baby Boomer Generation (1946 to 1965) women became as likely as men to attain this degree. This is important as these factors also impact a person’s cognition. They can serve as either risk or protective factors that modify a person’s experience of cognitive decline.

What if we could measure the impact of changes in gender norms on cognitive outcomes? Knowing this may help advance scientific knowledge of the social and behavioral determinants that affect cognitive aging. This in turn may help inform an empirical model of what drives gender differences in cognitive aging, and in the longer term, advance efforts to prevent, mitigate, and manage cognitive decline.

A main goal of the CoGenT3 Study is to quantify social and behavioral drivers of gender differences in cognition in a large, nationally representative sample of older adults and examine how these associations change in three generations of Americans: Greatest Generation (born 1915 to 1927), Silent Generation (born 1928 to 1945), and Baby Boomer Generation (1946 to 1965). The present study will use demographic, occupational, disability, and economic data from 1992 to 2016 and psychosocial data from 2006 to 2016.

Potential Impact:

This is the first study to examine how changes in social gender norms over time impact cognition. Results of this research are expected to bridge past and future studies of gender differences in cognitive aging. It will also guide future research by developing novel empirical data that can help identify drivers of gender differences and inform how to interpret the clinical implications of these gender differences. This information will:

  1. Inform a conceptual model for the study of gender in cognitive aging research
  2. Guide innovations in measurement of gender’s effects on cognition
  3. Support future study to discern the effects of gender from biologic sex on cognition

Next Steps:

Future steps will be to use the information learned from this pilot study to inform a follow-up study that will further test our empirical findings by comparing them across multiple cultures. This will allow us to begin to discern effects on cognition attributable to gender from those attributable to self-reported sex, which is an oft-used proxy for genetic sex.

The importance/value of RCCN funding for this collaborative research:

The RCCN pilot funds have made possible a new collaboration between Shana D. Stites, PsyD, at University of Pennsylvania Alzheimer's Disease Research Center (UPenn ADRC) and Jason Flatt, PhD, at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, as well as Rutgers RCMAR and the UCSF Pepper Center. Drs. Stites and Flatt are hoping the investment of funds and opportunity to collaborate provide the resources necessary to establish a line of research focused on understanding the effects of sex and gender in aging and Alzheimer’s.