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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Cognitive health among older adults in the United States and in England

Kenneth M Langa1*, David J Llewellyn2, Iain A Lang3, David R Weir4, Robert B Wallace5, Mohammed U Kabeto1 and Felicia A Huppert6

Author affiliations

1 Department of Internal Medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

2 Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

3 Epidemiology and Public Health, Peninsula Medical School, Exeter, UK

4 Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

5 Department of Epidemiology, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, USA

6 Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

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Citation and License

BMC Geriatrics 2009, 9:23  doi:10.1186/1471-2318-9-23

Published: 25 June 2009

Abstract

Background

Cognitive function is a key determinant of independence and quality of life among older adults. Compared to adults in England, US adults have a greater prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors and disease that may lead to poorer cognitive function. We compared cognitive performance of older adults in the US and England, and sought to identify sociodemographic and medical factors associated with differences in cognitive function between the two countries.

Methods

Data were from the 2002 waves of the US Health and Retirement Study (HRS) (n = 8,299) and the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) (n = 5,276), nationally representative population-based studies designed to facilitate direct comparisons of health, wealth, and well-being. There were differences in the administration of the HRS and ELSA surveys, including use of both telephone and in-person administration of the HRS compared to only in-person administration of the ELSA, and a significantly higher response rate for the HRS (87% for the HRS vs. 67% for the ELSA). In each country, we assessed cognitive performance in non-hispanic whites aged 65 and over using the same tests of memory and orientation (0 to 24 point scale).

Results

US adults scored significantly better than English adults on the 24-point cognitive scale (unadjusted mean: 12.8 vs. 11.4, P < .001; age- and sex-adjusted: 13.2 vs. 11.7, P < .001). The US cognitive advantage was apparent even though US adults had a significantly higher prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors and disease. In a series of OLS regression analyses that controlled for a range of sociodemographic and medical factors, higher levels of education and wealth, and lower levels of depressive symptoms, accounted for some of the US cognitive advantage. US adults were also more likely to be taking medications for hypertension, and hypertension treatment was associated with significantly better cognitive function in the US, but not in England (P = .014 for treatment × country interaction).

Conclusion

Despite methodological differences in the administration of the surveys in the two countries, US adults aged ≥ 65 appeared to be cognitively healthier than English adults, even though they had a higher burden of cardiovascular risk factors and disease. Given the growing number of older adults worldwide, future cross-national studies aimed at identifying the medical and social factors that might prevent or delay cognitive decline in older adults would make important and valuable contributions to public health.