Current generations of older people have worse thinking, learning and reasoning skills than previous generations, a new study finds.
It reverses an improving trend seen over the previous half century.
From the ‘greatest generation’ born 1890 to 1923, through to the war babies born 1942 to 1947, cognitive functioning had been steadily improving among the over-50s.
Then, starting with baby boomers born between 1954 and 1959, the trend began to reverse.
Older people are having more problems with remembering, problem-solving, decision-making and attention.
The culprit: mostly modern life.
Baby boomers with worse thinking skills are more likely to be lonely, depressed, inactive, obese and single.
Worsening thinking skills point to an increase in future rates of dementia.
Professor Hui Zheng, the study’s author, said:
“It is shocking to see this decline in cognitive functioning among baby boomers after generations of increases in test scores.
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.”
The results come from an analysis of over 30,000 Americans tracked between 1996 and 2014.
Standard cognitive tests included getting people to count down from 100 in 7s, naming objects they were shown and recalling words.
Baby boomers consistently did worse on these tests than previous generations, said Professor Zheng:
“Baby boomers already start having lower cognition scores than earlier generations at age 50 to 54.”
The results are especially surprising given that baby boomers had, on average, better childhood conditions than previous generations.
Professor Zheng said:
“The decline in cognitive functioning that we’re seeing does not come from poorer childhood conditions.
If it weren’t for their better childhood health, move favorable family background, more years of education and higher likelihood of having a white-collar occupation, baby boomers would have even worse cognitive functioning.”
We do not yet know how the next generation of late-baby boomers (born from 1960 onwards) fare on the tests as these were not included in the study.
However, Professor Zheng believes they will do worse again.
As a result, dementia rates are likely to increase:
“With the aging population in the United States, we were already likely to see an increase in the number of people with dementia.
But this study suggests it may be worse than we expected for decades to come.”
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The study was published in the The Journals of Gerontology: Series B (Zheng, 2020).