Center on Aging and Population Sciences

Pilot Projects

The overarching mission of the Center on Aging and Population Sciences is to illuminate how biological, psychosocial, and environmental factors intersect and cascade throughout the life course to generate disparities in health and well-being at older agesSubmissions for the 2021 pilot proposals are closed.

Current CAPS Pilot Projects

Neighborhood Characteristics Throughout Life and Midlife Cognitive Functioning
Elizabeth Munoz, Assistant Professor, Human Development & Family Sciences

Cognitive impairment, from mild impairment to dementia, has profound implications for older adults’ health and well-being and poses a significant burden on the U.S. health care system. Efforts to identify early and modifiable risk factors of cognitive impairment are therefore imperative for the early identification and prevention of cognitive decline in our aging population. Early-life disadvantage and stress have been theorized to be linked with cognitive impairment later in life—with some empirical evidence supporting this association. Most evidence in this area relies on associations between subjective retrospective reports and concurrent neighborhood characteristics with cognitive health, but research has yet to examine whether residential history—in particular, disadvantage in individuals’ earlier-life neighborhoods—influences cognitive functioning. Further, because cognitive decline may begin long before old age, understanding its antecedents requires mapping changes in cognition before old age, during midlife. The primary objective of this pilot project is to establish a coding system of historical residential address data for neighborhood resources and deprivation from childhood to midlife and to determine whether these indices are associated with cognitive function and variability. This proof of concept will allow the PI to pursue an R21 proposal to carry out these efforts in larger data sets with available historical address data, such as that available from the Life History Mail Survey from the Health and Retirement Study.

Trajectories of Mothers’ Breadwinning Responsibilities Over the Life Course
Jennifer Glass & Kelly Raley, Professors. Joanna Pippin, Assistant Professor, Sociology

Mothers provide the bulk of daily care for minor children; they also now frequently work for pay and increasingly provide the majority of the earnings needed to support their households. But scholars know little about when and why mothers become primary household earners, and how long mothers in different demographic groups spend in that status across their life course. We know even less about the cumulative health consequences of being the primary source of household earnings, as distinct from labor force participation or earnings per se. Breadwinning is a status that makes labor force participation obligatory rather than optional for mothers, alongside the caregiving obligations mothers still fulfill that breadwinning fathers typically do not. Yet prior work on premature aging suggests that precisely those groups likely to have the strongest risk of becoming breadwinning mothers show significant health declines by midlife (early age at first birth, nonmarital birth, low education, African-American ancestry, etc.). Evidence strongly suggests that a crucial pathway to premature aging may be the combined burden of both heavy financial and heavy care responsibility for children over long periods of time early in the life course. The primary goal of this project is to concatenate sources of longitudinal information on the share of household earnings from mothers in households with children under 18 to document US mothers’ lifetime incidence and duration as the primary economic support for their children. Cross-sectional estimates indicate that mothers provide primary support for nearly 40% of children under 18 at any given point in time, but lifetime risk and average duration in status have not been estimated, nor have variations in risk by marital status, age at first birth, race or education level. Such data are essential to understand the aggregate impact of mothers’ increasing financial responsibility for children on their health and successful aging.

Sources of Variation in Private Insurance Coverage Among Medicare Beneficiaries: Decomposing Place-Based and Person-Based Factors
Marika Cabral, Associate Professor, Economics

A key aspect of Medicare is the growing importance of private insurers in the provision of Medicare coverage. The share of Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in private Medicare Advantage (MA) coverage has doubled from 16% in 2006 to one-third in 2017 (Jacobson et al., 2017). However, the uptake of MA varies dramatically across markets, with fewer than 1% of Alaskan beneficiaries in private plans while 56% of Minnesotans receive their Medicare benefits via an MA plan (Jacobson et al., 2017). The decision to take-up MA instead of Traditional Medicare can have important implications for treatment patterns, healthcare spending, and ultimately patient health. For instance, prior work suggests that MA insurers engage in extensive utilization management, leading to substantially lower per-beneficiary utilization of both “low-value” and “high-value” services when compared to comparable Traditional Medicare beneficiaries (Curto et. al., 2019). Despite the importance of understanding MA take-up patterns, very little is known about what drives the large disparities in insurance sources across regions or the substantial increase in the prevalence of MA coverage over time. The primary goal of this project is to examine explanations for both the cross-sectional and longitudinal variation in the prevalence of Medicare beneficiaries opting for private MA coverage. This research expands on the PIs prior work on Medicare supplemental insurance (Cabral and Mahoney, 2019) and builds a foundation for a broader, long-term research agenda exploring the interaction between private and public insurance within the Medicare population.

Education and Financial Resilience During Economic Recession for Healthy Aging: Record Linkage of High School Education Longitudinal Studies to Consumer Credit Data
Chandra Muller & Mark Hayward, Professors, Sociology

Education is among the most important determinants of cognitive functioning and impairment in later life. Over the life course, education leads to better cognitive functioning and healthier aging through access to better jobs, health care, residential neighborhood, wealth accumulation, economic security. Yet, research on how and why early-life educational processes impact cognitive functioning in later life has been severely limited by a lack of prospective longitudinal data. We do not have data sufficient to identify the specific (and potentially malleable) aspects of education that shape cognitive functioning, or to understand the complex pathways through which education protects individuals as they age. The proposed project takes advantage of a unique opportunity to fill these gaps by matching identifying information from sample members of the US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Secondary Longitudinal Studies Program (SLSP) to Experian consumer credit records from 2004-2021, the period that covers two major economic shocks: the Great Recession and the recent recession resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The linked data will provide vital information to advance our understanding of cognitive aging.  

Large-Scale Genomic Analysis of Aging-Related Cognitive Declines
Elliot Tucker-Drob, Professor, Psychology

Aging-related cognitive declines substantially affect daily living, forecast the onset of clinically severe levels of cognitive impairment and dementia, and predict declines in physical health and eventual mortality. To date, the molecular processes underlying the neurodegeneration and cognitive decline remain poorly understood. Recent developments in genome wide association study (GWAS) provide promising avenues for identifying genetic variants associated with cognitive declines beyond those characterized by polymorphisms within the well-known APOE gene. However, a major challenge to progress in aging research is that that contemporary methods used to index cognitive aging in epidemiological research often rely on cognitive assessments or clinical rating at a single point in time, which are confounded by substantial variation in peak levels of cognitive function in early adulthood. Particularly when peak levels of cognitive function are high, cognitive declines may go undetected for decades before individuals present with impaired levels of functioning. Indeed, it has now become clear that by the time dementia diagnoses are made, neuropathology and trajectories of accelerated cognitive decline have accumulated extensively, during a so-called “silent period.” These issues both dilute and bias genetic associations in conventional designs. The primary goal of the pilot project is to develop novel methods needed conduct the first large-scale consortium-based GWAS of longitudinal rates of aging-related cognitive change, and to assemble a consortium of longitudinal population-based genetic studies of adult cognitive function. The result will set the stage for an R01 proposal to lead the first major effort to: investigate the genome-wide architecture of cognitive aging, produce improved genome-wide polygenic scores that can be used to enhance assessment of risk of cognitive decline, and to identify intersecting connections between genetic and social risk factors for cognitive aging.