Maria Casanova, an assistant professor of economics at Cal State Fullerton's Mihaylo College who has discovered a cognition gap between Mexican migrant elderly women and their non-migrant counterparts in the U.S.

Maria Casanova, assistant professor of economics at Cal State Fullerton’s Mihaylo College.

Maria Casanova, assistant professor of economics, is the author of a forthcoming study with interdisciplinary implications, examining cognitive outcomes among Mexican migrants to the U.S. compared to the country’s non-Hispanic population. She discussed her findings at a March 29 symposium sponsored by the Economics Association.

When Maria Casanova left her native Spain a decade ago, she recalls that few Europeans were concerned about retirement savings, as they anticipated living on public pensions. But with the economic changes transforming the European Union, there is now concern on the continent that the generosity of public pensions will be lower in future generations, prompting calls for U.S.-style individual retirement savings strategies.

It is a sea change in European thought that prompted Casanova to focus on the economics of aging in her research. “Most of my studies have some relationship to retirement,” she told attendees of a March 29 symposium sponsored by the Economics Association. “In some of my papers, I focus on savings decisions for retirement. Why do some people not save when they are young? I have written papers on what is preventing people from saving in 401(k)s. And I’ve also looked at how people manage their money during the up to 30 years of retirement.”

While usually thought of as a public health topic, Casanova has recognized that the cognitive ability of older adults has economic implications and impacting retirement decisions. Coupled with an interest in the Hispanic paradox – unexplained improved health and mortality outcomes for Mexican migrants to the U.S. compared with the broader American population – the Mihaylo College assistant professor resolved to examine the statistics on cognitive decline among elderly Mexican-born U.S. residents, compared with the non-Hispanic Caucasian population in the U.S.

Casanova discovered that while Mexican migrant males have cognitive outcomes on par with their non-Hispanic white counterparts of similar socioeconomic standing, there is an unexplained cognition gap among females, resulting in poorer outcomes for elderly Mexican migrant women. It is a finding that Casanova wishes to understand and is even seeking student insights on possible causes.

Cognitive Decline Among Mexican Migrants – An Anomaly to the Hispanic Paradox

Using the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a large national representative survey of the U.S. population aged 50 and above that began in 1992, following a cohort of older adults at periodic intervals ever since with an English/Spanish bilingual questionnaire, Casanova focused on the parts of the survey that relate to cognitive decline, a potential precursor to dementia and a key metric in the well-being of elders.

“Cognitive ability is related to what extent people are able to understand basic concepts,” explained Casanova. “It is not exactly the type of knowledge you would get through education, but it is simple tasks, such as counting backwards or remembering a certain list of words. There is huge variation in terms of cognitive ability among people of the same educational level.”

Casanova first discovered that when the average Mexican immigrant is compared with the average non-Hispanic white U.S. elderly resident, the former is not doing better with cognition. When controlling for the lower socioeconomic and educational status of many Mexican migrants born in the 1930s and 1940s (the generation examined in this study), Casanova discovered that the gap disappeared among men but still existed among women.

“Mexican women living in the U.S. may be at increased risk of dementia,” said Casanova. “One of the conclusions is that policies being put in place to prevent the onset of dementia should focus on this population.”

When further examining this cognition gap, Casanova looked at three possible explanatory hypotheses: increased risk factors among Mexican women, longer lifespans among females that would make cognitive decline more likely due to more advanced age, and a selection bias that could dictate the character of the sample. While no evidence was found for the first hypothesis, there was at least some reason to attribute the disparity to the latter two hypotheses, though likely not enough to provide a full explanation.

“We find some evidence that selection is stronger for men than for women, but we don’t believe that fully explains the gap in cognition compared to their white counterparts,” said Casanova. “It is often men who migrate first and then the wife joins them. Even if they migrated together, the husband is likely to be doing the toughest jobs. As for return migration, men in bad health might be more likely to return than women in bad health. Female Mexican immigrants tend to have a lot more support. This explains part of it, but not all of it, which is why in the end, we view this as a paradox.”

Still, Casanova’s research maintains that migrant outcomes are better than for their counterparts who remained in Mexico, with the difference especially strong for men.

Casanova believes her findings of a cognition gap are significant even without clear determination on causation, as it informs public health outreach for at-risk populations. However, she actively seeks insights into factors that may add further explanation, seeking input from students and others in the college community.

“The question for the future is understanding the remainder of the gap. I propose a few questions, such as education and income that might not be equal measures of socioeconomic status for males and females,” said Casanova. “For instance, is six years of education in Mexico the same for men and women? Maybe this is not fully controlling for differences. Another possibility: Does the cognition gap actually translate into a higher rate of dementia? The share of our sample that has been diagnosed with dementia is very small, so we cannot do this work with this sample.”

For More on Casanova and Economics

Looking to the future, Casanova plans to continue her research on retirement economics topics, including on the wages offered to elderly workers. For more on her studies, or to offer suggestions or potential insights into her research, please contact her at mcasanova@fullerton.edu.

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