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Educational attainment is a well-documented predictor of later-life cognition, but less is known about upstream contextual factors. This study aimed to identify which early-life contextual factors uniquely predict later-life global cognition and whether educational attainment mediates these relationships.
Participants were drawn from the Michigan Cognitive Aging Project (N = 485; Mage = 63.51; SDage = 3.13; 50% non-Hispanic Black). Early-life exposures included U.S. region of elementary school (Midwest, South, Northeast), average parental education, household composition (number of adults (1, 2, 3+), number of children), school racial demographics (predominantly White, predominantly Black, diverse), self-reported educational quality, and school type (public/private). Later-life global cognition was operationalized with a factor score derived from a comprehensive neuropsychological battery. Sequential mediation models controlling for sociodemographics estimated total, direct, and indirect effects of early-life contextual factors on cognition through educational attainment (years).
Higher educational quality, higher parental education, and attending a private school were each associated with better cognition; attending a predominantly Black or diverse school and reporting three or more adults in the household were associated with lower cognition. After accounting for educational attainment, associations remained for educational quality, school type, and reporting three or more adults in the household. Indirect effects through educational attainment were observed for school region, educational quality, school racial demographics, and parental education.
School factors appear to consistently predict later-life cognition more than household factors, highlighting the potential long-term benefits of school-level interventions for cognitive aging. Future research should consider additional mediators beyond educational attainment such as neighborhood resources and childhood adversity.
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