Associate Professor of Sociology Sara Moorman (Peter Julian)

Social factors in childhood and adolescence, including socioeconomic status, which influence later-life cognitive function are the focus of current research by Associate Professor of Sociology Sara Moorman, aided by a $715,854 grant from the National Institute on Aging.

Brain imaging findings by neuropsychologists – which show that Alzheimer’s disease starts as early as middle adulthood, decades before there is any sign of cognitive impairment – spurred Moorman’s work with colleague Emily Greenfield, a Rutgers University associate professor of social work.  The pair will examine early social factors such as high school quality and family stressors as predictors for later adulthood cognition.

“Better understanding childhood socioeconomic status (SES) as a potential risk or protective factor for later life cognitive health is essential for furthering early detection, prevention, and treatment strategies,” Moorman explained.

“Our grant looks at the relationships between early-life factors, particularly socioeconomic status in one’s family of origin, and cognitive function in one’s 60s and 70s. We have a fantastic dataset of 10,000 people who began participating in a longitudinal study when they were in high school, and now they are in their 70s.”

Schools are a major context in which young people experience SES, Moorman said.

“We know what their cognitive function is like now, and we also know what their high schools were like – for example, student-teacher ratio and average teacher salary – what their parents did for a living, and how well they did in school. We also have genetic data on their risk for Alzheimer’s.”

During the 2017-2020 grant period, the study also will test whether these social factors have a stronger influence on the cognitive function of older adults who are at genetic risk for cognitive impairment.

“It has already become very clear to us that policy for childhood education and childhood health today is policy for dementia tomorrow. Rural kids, kids who grew up poor, and kids who went to low-quality schools continue to be behind their peers cognitively over 50 years later.

“Investments in programs like Medicaid and Head Start are investments that will still be paying off when these children grow to be older adults,” Moorman said.

In addition to early-life predictors of adult cognitive functioning, Moorman’s major areas of research are end-of-life medical decision-making, and negative psychological experiences in personal relationships.

A social gerontologist and expert in quantitative and survey methods, Moorman holds a joint appointment with the Boston College Institute on Aging. Her 2017 paper, “Mechanisms Linking Neighborhood Age Composition to Health,” won the 2016 Matilda White Riley Early Stage Investigator Honors from the National Institutes of Health.

A fellow of the Gerontological Society of America, she is a member-at-large of its Behavioral and Social Sciences Section Executive Committee, and an editorial board member of the journals The Gerontologist, Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, and Research on Aging.

At BC, she teaches Sociology of Health and Illness; Aging and Society; Survey Methodology and Topics in Multivariate Statistics.

Rosanne Pellegrini | University Communications