"While many studies to date have focused on individual-level sources of disparity (e.g. racial and ethnic origins), this is the first study to report a rural-urban differential that behooves the scientific and clinical community to address the attendant factors that confer higher risk for dementia in rural seniors," said senior investigator Regina Shih of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization.
The study also found that dementia rates in both rural and urban areas are decreasing, perhaps because of higher high-school graduation rates.
The researchers studied rural and urban seniors in both 2000 and 2010 to assess overall trends. They found that cognitive impairment in rural seniors declined from 7.1 percent in 2000 to 5.1 percent in 2010. Cognitive impairment in urban seniors declined from 5.4 percent in 2000 to 4.4 percent in 2010. During that time period, the racial and ethnic minority population increased in rural areas and so did the overall number of rural adults who had more than 12 years of education.
"Our findings linking rural adults' recent gains in cognitive functioning with the improved rates of high school graduation provides a new example of how public investment in education can narrow population health disparities," said lead investigator Margaret M. Weden. "The absence of any prior evidence about the rates and disparities in dementia and cognitive impairment by rural residence that comes from a large, nationally representative study has certainly hampered the ability of these communities to advocate for continued investment in rural healthcare and long-term care services."