Eliminating racial disparities in dementia risk by equalizing education quality: A sensitivity analysis

Chelsea Liu, Audrey R. Murchland, Tyler J. VanderWeele, Deborah Blacker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Higher risk of dementia among racial/ethnic minorities compared to White populations in the U.S. has been attributed to life-course exposures to adverse conditions such as lower educational attainment, but most studies have not considered additional disparities in education quality. We sought to determine the extent to which disparities in dementia would be reduced had different racial groups received the same quality of education, with no change to present disparities in educational attainment. Methods: We conducted a literature review to assess whether and how measures of educational attainment and quality are utilized in the development of norms for standard cognitive screening measures. In a separate search of the literature, we identified estimates of relationships between race, education quality and dementia; and calculated the adjusted association between race and dementia had education quality been equalized between Black and White participants. Results: Most norms for cognitive measures included educational attainment, but few addressed quality. Our search identified relevant parameter estimates: 44.3% of Black participants and 10.5% of White participants had “limited literacy” (<9th grade reading level, a potential marker of poor education quality), which was associated with a 53% greater hazard of dementia compared with “adequate literacy” (≥ 9th grade reading level) after adjusting for educational attainment. Applying these parameters to a hazard ratio of 1.37 (95%CI: 1.12,1.67) for the risk of dementia comparing Black to White participants, we obtained an adjusted hazard ratio of 1.17 (0.96,1.43), a 54% reduction. Discussion: Present studies are limited in their consideration of education quality. Our work using available measures from the literature suggests that if education quality were equalized across groups by race, without changing disparities in attainment, racial disparities in dementia would be reduced by about half. Future work should seek to consistently incorporate education quality in order to better understand the sources of disparities.

Original languageEnglish
Article number115347
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Nov 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Cognitive aging
  • Dementia
  • Education
  • Minority health
  • Social determinants of health


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