Decline in cognitive abilities among baby boomers suggests new wave of dementia cases on horizon

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The ability to manipulate our long term health may be at its greatest point ever. Between all the studies that tell us how to keep our brains and bodies in tip-top shape, along with all the supplements lining the shelves of our nearest health store, it seems there’s no excuse for us to not to be as sharp as a tack. Yet, that’s not the case for millions of older Americans, at least. A surprising new study from The Ohio State University finds baby boomers over the age of 50, on average, are scoring lower on cognitive functioning tests than previous generations had at the same age.

Rates of dementia have actually declined in the United States in recent years. But the study’s authors say their findings suggest the country could see a surge in cases over the next few decades.

Smarter with age

Over the past 100 years or so, Americans have steadily become smarter from one generation to the next. For example, the “war baby” generation (Americans born between 1942-1947) scored higher on cognition tests than the greatest generation (Americans born between 1890-1923). Now, though, the baby boomer segment appears to be heading in the opposite direction. Cognition scores among early baby boomers (born between 1948-1953) started this downward trajectory, and subsequent tests administered to mid-baby boomers (1954-1959) returned even lower grades.

“It is shocking to see this decline in cognitive functioning among baby boomers after generations of increases in test scores,” comments lead study author Hui Zheng, professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, in a 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.”

Subpar cognitive functioning among baby boomers is linked to less monetary success, and higher levels of loneliness, depression, obesity, and laziness. Baby boomers with low cognitive scores are also less likely to be married, and more prone to psychiatric and or cardiovascular health issues.

Surprising results

In all, the study includes data from 30,191 Americans. Between 1996 and 2014, all participants within that group over the age of 51 took surveys every two years. The surveys include a cognitive test that asks participants to complete a series of tasks (remember certain words, count down from 100 by 7s, name shown objects, etc).

It’s worth noting that other studies have report higher rates of mortality and illness among baby boomers in comparison to earlier generations. Still, those findings usually only apply to uneducated, poorer citizens.

“That’s why it was so surprising to me to see cognitive declines in all groups in this study,” Zheng notes. “The declines were only slightly lower among the wealthiest and most highly educated.”

Researchers made it a priority to specifically compare test scores among age groups within each generation as well. This way, the findings wouldn’t be skewed by a 30-year old greatest generation member being compared to a 60-year old baby boomer. Even then, baby boomers still scored the lowest.

“Baby boomers already start having lower cognition scores than earlier generations at age 50 to 54,” Zheng says.

What’s behind the baby boomers’ decline?

All this led Zheng and his team to the next logical question: Why are baby boomers scoring so much worse? The research team considered a variety of possibilities.

First, they examined baby boomers’ childhoods in comparison to earlier Americans. Their findings show that childhood health and living conditions for boomers were at least as good, if not better in most cases, than people born in earlier decades. Baby boomers generally grew up in favorable socioeconomic conditions as well, and had greater access to education and job opportunities. So, suffice to say, none of these theories provide an explanation. If anything, these factors indicate baby boomers should be smarter, not lagging behind.

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“The decline in cognitive functioning that we’re seeing does not come from poorer childhood conditions,” Zheng adds. “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.”

The study’s authors didn’t have enough data on late baby boomers (born 1960 or after) to include them in the research. Still, Zheng believes their cognitive scores would be low as well. Moreover, he says it’s likely that this downward trend continues among later generations (generation x, millennials).

Dementia ‘may be worse than expected for years to come’

While some of the factors linked to lower cognitive scores (loneliness, economic inequality) can be seen all over the world, Zheng also says some of these elements are unique to the United States (high cost of healthcare).

“Part of the story here are the problems of modern life, but it is also about life in the U.S.,” he says.

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

The study is published in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences.

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