Cognability: An Ecological Theory of neighborhoods and cognitive aging

Jessica Finlay, Michael Esposito, Kenneth M. Langa, Suzanne Judd, Philippa Clarke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


While a growing body of evidence points to potentially modifiable individual risk factors for dementia, the built and social environments in which people develop and navigate cognitive decline are largely overlooked. This paper proposes a new theoretical concept, Cognability, to conceptualize how supportive an area is to cognitive health among aging residents. Cognability incorporates a constellation of both positive and negative neighborhood features related to physical activity, social interaction and cognitive stimulation in later life. We analyzed data from the REasons for Geographic And Racial Differences in Stroke Study, a national sample of older Black and white adults in the United States (n = 21,151; mean age at assessment = 67; data collected 2006–2017). Generalized additive multilevel models examined how cognitive function varied by neighborhood features. Access to civic and social organizations, recreation centers, fast-food and coffee establishments, arts centers, museums, and highways were significantly associated with cognitive function. Race-, gender-, and education-specific models did not yield substantial improvements to the full-model. Our results suggest that the unequal distribution of amenities and hazards across neighborhoods may help account for considerable inequities observed in cognitive health among older adults. Cognability advances ecological theories of aging through an innovative “whole neighborhood” approach. It aims to identify which specific neighborhood features are most protective of cognitive health among aging adults to inform upstream public health initiatives, community interventions, and policy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number115220
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Sep 2022
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Elsevier Ltd


  • Aging in place
  • Built environment
  • Cognitive function
  • Dementia risk
  • Disparities
  • Health behaviors
  • Urban amenities


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