Childhood and Adulthood Trauma Associate With Cognitive Aging Among Black and White Older Adults

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



The American journal of geriatric psychiatry : official journal of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry








Cognition; adverse childhood experiences; dementia; racial disparities; stress


UNLABELLED: Sociocontextual factors powerfully shape risk for age-related cognitive impairment, including excess risk burdening medically underserved populations. Lifecourse adversity associates with cognitive aging, but harms are likely mitigable. Understanding population-salient relationships and sensitive periods for exposure is crucial for targeting clinical interventions. OBJECTIVE: The authors examined childhood and adulthood traumatic events in relation to cognition among Black and White older adults in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS). PARTICIPANTS: Participants (N = 13,952) aged 55+ had complete lifetime trauma and cognitive testing data at the 2006/08, 2010/12, and/or 2014/16 waves. MEASURES: Trauma indices comprised childhood and adulthood event counts. Outcomes included baseline performance and trajectories on the Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status. DESIGN: Main and nonlinear trauma effects were modeled via linear regression, and overall contributions assessed with omnibus likelihood ratio tests. RESULTS: Black participants (N = 2,345) reported marginally lower adulthood trauma exposure than White participants (N = 11,607) with no other exposure differentials observed. In White participants only, greater childhood trauma exposure predicted worse baseline cognition but slower change over time. Across race, adulthood trauma robustly associated with baseline cognition. Relationships were frequently nonlinear: low but nonzero trauma predicted highest cognitive scores, with much poorer cognition observed as trauma exposure increased. Relationships between adulthood trauma and trajectory were limited to the White sample. CONCLUSION: Traumatic experiences, particularly in adulthood, may impact late-life cognitive health if not addressed. Findings highlight foci for clinical researchers and providers: adverse life events as a source of cognitive risk, and identification of community-specific resources that buffer behavioral, physical, and mental health sequelae of previous and incident trauma.


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