The Neighborhood You Grow Up in May Impact Your Cognitive Health Decades Later

September 22, 2023 • by Emily Engelbart

Jean Choi, Elizabeth Muñoz and collaborators identified associations between neighborhood cohesion and cognitive health.

A child's sense of neighborhood cohesion could impact their cognitive health later in life.

Whether a child experiences belonging and trust in their neighborhood could influence their cognitive health later in life, a new study finds.

Whether an individual experiences a sense of belonging and trust near home — what scientists call neighborhood cohesion — during childhood can potentially affect their cognitive health later in life, according to a study by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin. 

The results, published in The Journals of Gerontology this past summer, suggest that greater neighborhood cohesion in both childhood and late midlife/adulthood contributes to better cognitive functioning in midlife and later adulthood. 

“There are a lot of explanations behind this finding, but it may suggest that cohesion specifically from childhood may exert long-term influences for later cognitive health,” said Jean Choi, a Ph.D. student working in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences with assistant professor Elizabeth Muñoz, who co-authored the study. “Our findings suggest that childhood may be an especially sensitive developmental stage for early brain growth, which goes in line with the critical period model.” 

The authors used data from more than 3,000 adults over 50 years of age which they gathered from the Health and Retirement Study. On a scale of one to seven, these adults retrospectively rated their sense of neighborhood cohesion during childhood, young adulthood and early midlife, as well as experiences of neighborhood cohesion more recently in their lives. They also completed the Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status at each stage. 

Choi and her team then assessed whether there were associations between neighborhood cohesion at each of the four life stages and cognitive health in the individuals in the study.. 

Neighborhood cohesion during young adulthood and early midlife did not significantly impact the cognitive health for the adults over 50. Choi hypothesizes that other factors may exert more influence on individuals during young adulthood and early midlife, like their own career or caring for their children and parents. Another possibility is that individuals in those two age groups may spend more waking hours at work than at home, suggesting less sensitivity to their neighborhood surroundings compared to during childhood and a stage of adulthood when many people retire or otherwise scale back their careers.. 

“I think further investigating whether there are differences across different populations will be an important next step, and something that I would love to dig into,” Choi said. In this study, the majority of respondents identified as non-Hispanic White, but future research could help shed light on whether outcomes differ by race or income level, Choi suggested. 

The number of cognitive disorders in the U.S. are expected to increase as the population ages; it has been projected that over 13 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s and related dementias by 2050 — more than double the current number. Numerous studies have indicated that social isolation can contribute to problems with health and wellbeing, and this new study adds to that body of research.

“Growing research has shown that neighborhood cohesion promotes positive adult health outcomes, but there has still been a lack of focus on cognitive health especially from a life course perspective,” Choi said. “This is why I wanted to better understand how neighborhood cohesion can influence cognitive health in later life and how we can intervene earlier in the life course.” 

In addition to Muñoz, co-authors of the paper include Sae Han, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, and Yee To Ng of the University of Michigan.


A child's sense of neighborhood cohesion could impact their cognitive health later in life.

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