People aged 50 and over who live in rural England tend to do better in memory tests than their counterparts who live in English towns and cities, a new study has found. However, this pattern was reversed in China, where those living in rural areas performed much worse compared to their counterparts in urban settings.
Although cognitive functioning is strongly associated with biological changes in the brain during the ageing process, very little is known about the role of sociocultural differentials between the western and eastern parts of the world. This new study, published in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, showed while higher education and wealth are associated with better baseline memory performance in both England and China, the impact of contextual-level characteristics such as urbanicity differed between the two countries.
The study looked at the results of memory tests taken by two nationally representative population samples, whose participants were aged 50 and over, in the two countries.
Dr Dorina Cadar, Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Epidemiology and Dementia, Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS), and lead author, said: “This is the first investigation to explore comparatively the role of multiple socioeconomic and contextual markers on cognitive decline in England and China. It found that in both countries higher levels of education and wealth had a significant impact on participants’ memory performance. However, those in urban China did much better than their rural counterparts, while the reverse was true in England.”
The team examined data from 6,687 participants of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), who have been monitored every two years between 2010 and 2019, as well as from 10,252 participants of the Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study (CHARLS), who were monitored between 2011 and 2018. Memory was tested at every wave in these studies with a word list recall in which the participants were presented with ten common unrelated words and were asked to recall these words immediately and after a few minutes delay.
A third of the English population sample was educated to a low level, while 70% of the Chinese sample was not educated or educated to a low level. About 70% of ELSA participants live in an urban area, while 77% of CHARLS participants live in a rural area.
Dr Cadar added: “This comparative examination suggests that the average baseline memory scores were generally lower in China compared with England, while the rate of memory decline was much steeper for the Chinese counterparts compared to English participants when accounting for education. Higher levels of education showed significant protective effects on the rate of memory decline in Chinese participants but not in English participants.”
The specific country differences captured here could be explained by several factors. One is that English participants had overall higher baseline memory scores and declined less over time, while the Chinese respondents started with significantly lower scores and dropped a bit faster. Second, the access to education and pattern of lifestyle behaviours influencing overall health and cognitive performance might be different between England and China. Lastly, the difference in baseline memory scores could be related to the overall lower level of literacy in China (up to 70-80% of the population).
Read the study in full here >