Baby Boomer Cognitive Function Shows Substantial Decline

Baby boomers are seeing a decline compared to older generations in cognitive functioning.
Brad Bergan

U.S. baby boomers scored lower on a test of cognitive functioning than those of older generations, according to a recent nationwide study published in The Journals of Gerontology.


Baby boomers' cognitive functions are declining

The new findings demonstrated cognition scores for adults aged 50 and older increased from one generation to the next, starting with the greatest generation (with birthdates between 1890 and 1923), and achieving a peak among war babies (1942 to 1947).

Scores saw a decline among the early baby boomers (born between 1948 and 1953), and continued the downward trend through the mid baby boomers (who were born between 1954 and 1959).

Studies show the prevalence of dementia experienced a decline in the U.S., but these new results suggest the trends may shift direction in the coming decades, according to Hui Zheng, lead study author and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.

"It is shocking to see this decline in cognitive functioning among baby boomers after generations of increases in test scores," said Zheng. "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."

Lower cognitive function linked to less wealth, depression, loneliness

The study also found lower cognitive functioning in baby boomers correlated with less wealth, higher levels of loneliness, inactivity, depression, and obesity — including a lower chance of being married.

The study analyzed data based on 30,191 Americans who were part of the 1996 to 2014 Health and Retirement Survey conducted by the University of Michigan. Those more than 51 years old were surveyed once every two years.

Participants completed a cognitive test as part of the study — where they were required to recall words they'd heard earlier, perform a countdown from 100 by 7s, name displayed objects, and perform various additional tasks.

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Wealthiest and educated mostly spared from rising mortality rates

Other research suggests overall mortality rates and illness have seen an upsurge among baby boomers, but it seems the wealthiest and most highly educated were mostly spared.

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

In a time when the coronavirus crisis has forced many to social distance and self-quarantine — both linked with higher rates of loneliness and depression — it seems relevant that there are portions of the baby boomer generation who may be experiencing a loss of cognitive function. We can only hope there are plenty of good books around for every generation, to keep our minds sharp in these strange and difficult times.

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