Cognition, Health, and Well-Being in a Rural Sub-Saharan African Population

Abstract [from journal]

Cognitive health is an important dimension of well-being in older ages, but few studies have investigated the demography of cognitive health in sub-Saharan Africa’s growing population of mature adults (= persons aged 45+). We use data from the Malawi Longitudinal Study of Families and Health to document the age and gender patterns of cognitive health, the contextual and life-course correlates of poor cognitive health, and the understudied linkages between cognitive and physical/mental well-being. Surprisingly, the age pattern of decline in cognitive health is broadly similar to that observed in the USA. We also find that women have substantially worse cognitive health than men and experience a steeper age gradient in cognitive ability. Strong social ties and exposure to socially complex environments are associated with higher cognitive health, as is higher socioeconomic status. Poor cognitive health is associated with adverse social and economic well-being outcomes such as less nutrition intake, lower income, and reduced work efforts even in this subsistence agriculture context. Lower levels of cognitive health are also strongly associated with increased levels of depression and anxiety and are associated with worse physical health measured through both self-reports and physical performance. Our findings suggest that cognition plays a key—but understudied—role in shaping late-life well-being in low-income populations.