Newswise — A study by researchers at the Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research provides new evidence of the impact of family relationships on the cognitive health of older Chinese immigrants in the United States.

Existing research has focused on social determinants such as social networks and social engagement on cognitive function among older adults. But limited research has focused on family, particularly among older Chinese immigrant populations, said lead author Mengting Li, core faculty member at the Institute for Health and assistant professor at Rutgers School of Nursing.

“For older immigrants, and also for native older adults, family may be the most important context for aging, but we have little knowledge of how these relationships may affect cognitive function,” Li said. “Research that has focused on family up until now has been limited to one aspect, such as family size or support. But family is multidimensional, and our study captures that.”

The new study, published in the journal Research on Aging, used data collected from the Population Study of Chinese Elderly (PINE) in Chicago. The researchers identified four family types among participants based on family structure, contact frequency, emotional closeness, conflict, support exchange, and family norms in their intergenerational relationships. The researchers then examined the associations between the family types and overall cognitive function of participants, as well as cognitive domains such as memory and executive function.

A tight-knit family type is the most common in Chinese culture because it closely aligns with filial piety, the traditional concept of caring for one’s aging parents. The researchers hypothesized that older Chinese immigrants with this family type would have better cognitive outcomes.

Surprisingly, they found that the majority of older Chinese immigrants had both high intergenerational solidarity and high intergenerational conflict within their families – an unobligated ambivalent family type – and they had the best overall cognitive health.

The study outlined several possibilities for why, including that family conflicts to some extent may have a stimulating effect on cognitive function among older Chinese immigrants. But they found there is a limit, Li explained.

“If their family relationships are predominantly negative, such as in commanding conflicted family types, this may be dangerous to their cognitive health,” Li said.

The findings may help health care and social service providers to understand multidimensional family relationships and consider the impact on cognitive function when developing interventions.

Researchers noted that the findings may not apply to other minority groups. Further longitudinal studies are needed to strengthen causality of the impact of family relationships on cognitive health.

SEE ORIGINAL STUDY