Over the last few decades, cognition was improving among people over 50. Beginning with those born from 1890 to 1923, the “greatest generation,” and through the 1942–1947 generation of the “war babies,” cognitive scores were rising.
However, a new study finds that starting with early (1948–1953) and middle (1954–1959) baby boomers, the trend may now be moving in reverse.
On average, baby boomers achieve lower scores in cognitive tests than previous generations, according to recent data.
“It is shocking to see this decline in cognitive functioning among baby boomers after generations of increases in test scores,” says study author, sociologist Hui Zheng of Ohio State University in Columbus, OH.
While the study did not include late baby boomers (1960–1964), Zheng expects that they will also have lower scores, as will subsequent generations unless researchers can resolve the issues behind the decline.
Zheng cautions that “it may be worse than we expected for decades to come.”
The author published the study in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B.
The study analyzed data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Survey conducted between 1996 and 2014. For the survey, researchers interviewed 30,191 people in the United States aged 51 and older every 2 years.
Participants each took cognition tests, which involved performing various tasks, including naming objects, counting down by seven from 100, and remembering a series of words.
“Baby boomers already start having lower cognition scores than earlier generations at age 50 to 54,” says Zheng.
He adds, “But what was most surprising to me is that this decline is seen in all groups: men and women, across all races and ethnicities, and across all education, income, and wealth levels.”
In other studies of the baby boomers, highly educated and wealthier people largely escaped the generation’s increased mortality and illness rates. This was not the case with cognition, reports Zheng:
“That’s why it was so surprising to me to see cognitive declines in all groups in this study. The declines were only slightly lower among the wealthiest and most highly educated.”
With cognitive decline so apparent in people in their 50s and 60s, Zheng is concerned that increases in dementia may follow.
“With the aging population in the U.S., we were already likely to see an increase in the number of people with dementia,” he says.
Behind baby boomers’ cognitive decline
To understand the causes behind their accelerated cognitive decline, Zheng and his colleagues explored the life experiences of baby boomers, comparing them to previous generations.
“The decline in cognitive functioning that we’re seeing does not come from poorer childhood conditions,” says Zheng, since those conditions were as positive for baby boomers as for previous generations, including good childhood health.
Furthermore, baby boomers’ families were of higher socioeconomic status than prior generations and had higher education levels and better jobs.
It might be more reasonable to tie the decline in baby boomers’ cognitive skills to conditions during adulthood.
The researcher found associations between cognitive decline and an assortment of factors that baby boomers experience as adults:
- less wealth
- self-reported depression and loneliness
- being physically inactive
- being obese
- not living with a spouse
- having had multiple marriages
- having psychiatric problems
- being at cardiovascular risk, including strokes
- having hypertension
- having heart disease
- having diabetes.
“If it weren’t for their better childhood health, more favorable family background, more years of education, and a higher likelihood of having a white-collar occupation, baby boomers would have even worse cognitive functioning,” Zheng hypothesizes.
To some extent, the study suggests that reduced cognitive function may have links to aspects of modern life, such as the increase in economic inequality and feeling less connected to friends.
“Part of the story here is the problems of modern life, but it is also about life in the U. S.,” asserts Zheng, citing the cost of health care in America and the lack of universal health care that other nations provide.