Same-Sex Couples and Cognitive Impairment: Evidence from the Health and Retirement Study

September 21, 2021 - Karessa Weir

MSU Sociology Professors Hui Liu and Zhenmei Zhang, Assistant Professor Ning Hsieh and recent PhD alumnus Yan Zhang have published an article with University of Michigan's Kenneth M. Langa the provides the first nationally-representative population-based study of cognitive disparities among same-sex and different-sex couples in the United States.

The group analysed data from the Health and Retirement Study and found the odds of cognitive impairment was 78 percent higher for same-sex partners than for different-sex partners. They published their findings in The Journal of Gerontology.

"This disparity was mainly explained by differences in marital status and, to a much lesser extent, by differences in physical and mental health," the group wrote. "Specifically, a significantly higher proportion of same-sex partners than different-sex partners were cohabiting rather than legally married and cohabitors had a significantly higher risk of cognitive impairment than their married counterparts."

"These findings indicate that designing and implementing public policies and programs that work to eliminate societal homophobia, especially among older adults, is a critical step in reducing the elevated risk of cognitive impairment among older same-sex couples."

The full study is available at

Hui Liu  is Professor of Sociology and Director of the F.P.H Laboratory. Dr. Liu’s research is broadly guided by the aging and life course perspective to study social determinants of population health, with particular attention to marriage and family processes linked to population health and well-being.

Zhenmei Zhang  is a Professor of Sociology and an affiliated faculty with the Asian Studies Center, Center for Gender in Global Context, and Center for Advanced Study of International Development at Michigan State University.

Ning Hsieh’s research concerns the reciprocal link between social relationships and health over the life course, including late adulthood. Much of her work has examined how social connection and relationship quality in various domains, including partnership, family, friendship, and community relationship, shape (and are shaped by) health and well-being among older adults. 

Kenneth M. Langa is the Cyrus Sturgis Professor of Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a Professor of Health Management and Policy.

Yan Zhang is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Demography of Health and Aging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.