Much variation in individual-level cognitive function in late life remains unexplained, with little exploration of area-level/contextual factors to date. Income inequality is a contextual factor that may plausibly influence cognitive function.
In a nationally-representative cohort of older Americans from the Health and Retirement Study, we examined state- and metropolitan statistical area (MSA)-level income inequality as predictors of individual-level cognitive function measured by the 27-point Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status (TICS-m) scale. We modeled latency periods of 8–20 years, and controlled for state-/metropolitan statistical area (MSA)-level and individual-level factors.
Higher MSA-level income inequality predicted lower cognitive function 16–18 years later. Using a 16-year lag, living in a MSA in the highest income inequality quartile predicted a 0.9-point lower TICS-m score (β = -0.86; 95% CI = -1.41, -0.31), roughly equivalent to the magnitude associated with five years of aging. We observed no associations for state-level income inequality. The findings were robust to sensitivity analyses using propensity score methods.
Among older Americans, MSA-level income inequality appears to influence cognitive function nearly two decades later. Policies reducing income inequality levels within cities may help address the growing burden of declining cognitive function among older populations within the United States.