The geography of dementia rates

Many studies have shown that general health is better in urban areas than in rural ones, partly because of access to quality healthcare. However, since 2000, the dementia rates have dropped faster in rural areas than in urban areas, and the reasons may be surprising, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

An analysis of more than 16,000 U.S. adults age 55 or older compared dementia rates to residence regions and found that dementia rates have decreased from 7.1 percent to 5.1 percent in rural areas from 2000 to 2010. While dementia rates also dropped in urban areas, the 10-year difference was only 1 percent.

The change is related to the rising amount of education in rural areas, where the number of rural residents attaining an education of at least 12th grade doubled between 2000 and 2010, the study authors say.

“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,” commented lead investigator Margaret M. Weden, PhD, a social scientist at the RAND Corporation, in a press release. “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.”

While the study data highlight the importance of life-long learning, no matter the subject, the findings still emphasize the dispartities between rural and urban areas when it comes to cognitive decline, noted senior investigator Regina Shih, PhD, of the RAND Corporation.

“We were heartened to observe that the rural-urban disparities in dementia have narrowed somewhat over time, however there is still a disadvantage that persists among rural seniors,” Shih said in the announcement. “Rural communities are aging more rapidly than urban communities. Given that those communities experience more healthcare and long-term care system challenges, we hope this research sheds light on the need to intervene on the factors that place rural seniors at greater risk for dementia.”

Topics: Alzheimer's/Dementia