American baby boomers scored lower on a test of cognitive functioning than members of previous generations, according to results from a new nationwide study from The Ohio State University.

The data showed that the average cognition scores of adults aged 50 years and older increased from generation to generation, beginning with the greatest generation (born between 1890 and 1923) and peaking among war babies (born between 1942 and 1947). Further, scores began to decline in the early baby boomers (born between 1948 and 1953) and decreased further in the mid baby boomers (born between 1954 and 1959).

The prevalence of dementia has declined in the United States, but these results suggest those trends may reverse in the coming decades, according to the study.

“It is shocking to see this decline in cognitive functioning among baby boomers after generations of increases in test scores,” said study author Hui Zheng, associate professor, in a press release. “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.”

Further, the results showed a link between lower cognitive functioning in baby boomers with less wealth, along with higher levels of loneliness, depression, inactivity, and obesity, and less likelihood of being married.

The researchers analyzed 30,191 Americans who participated in the 1996 to 2014 Health and Retirement Survey, in which people over 51 years old were surveyed every 2 years. Participants conducted a cognitive test in which they had to recall words they had heard earlier, count down from 100 in increments of 7, name objects they were shown, and perform other tasks.

Previous research found that overall rates of mortality and illness have increased in baby boomers, but generally found that the highly educated and wealthiest were mostly spared. Zheng also compared cognition scores within each age group across generations so the scores could not be skewed by older people who tend to have poorer cognition. With this, the baby boomers came out on the bottom.

Zheng added that increasing cognition scores in previous generations could be tied to beneficial childhood conditions that were similar for baby boomers. Baby boomers’ childhood health was as good as or better than previous generations and they came from families who had higher socioeconomic status. In addition, they had higher levels of education and better occupations, according to the press release.

The biggest factors linked to lower cognition scores among baby boomers in the study were lower wealth, higher levels of self-reported loneliness and depression, lack of physical activity, and obesity. In addition, living without a spouse, being married more than once, having psychiatric problems, and cardiovascular risk factors—including strokes, hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes—were also associated with lower cognitive functioning among people in this generation.

“If it weren’t for their better childhood health, more favorable family background, more years of education and higher likelihood of having a white-collar occupation, baby boomers would have even worse cognitive functioning,” Zheng said in a press release.

A limitation of the study included not having enough late baby boomers to include in the research, although Zheng said he believes they will not progress any better. Further, many of the problems found in the study are unique to the United States, including less connection with family and friends and growing economic inequality.

“With the aging population in the United States, we were already likely to see an increase in the number of people with dementia,” Zheng said in a press release. “But this study suggests it may be worse than we expected for decades to come.”

REFERENCE
Baby boomers show concerning decline in cognitive functioning. Ohio State News. https://news.osu.edu/baby-boomers-show-concerning-decline-in-cognitive-functioning/#:~:text=Results%20showed%20lower%20cognitive%20functioning,Journals%20of%20Gerontology%3A%20Social%20Sciences. Published August 3, 2020. Accessed August 4, 2020.