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Baby boomers show lower cognitive functioning than previous generations at same age, study finds

Researchers are thinking about how these findings could affect cases of dementia in the future

Photo (c) Motortion - Getty Images
While some consumers could be looking for warning signs linked to cognitive decline, recent studies have found ways to slow cognitive decline, including certain games or staying engaged with several different activities

Now, researchers from Ohio State University have found that baby boomers are showing signs of cognitive decline much earlier than previous generations at the same age. Their study revealed that previous trends indicated that consumers’ cognitive functioning improved after age 50, but this wasn’t the case with baby boomers. 

“It is shocking to see this decline in cognitive functioning among baby boomers after generations of increases in test scores,” said researcher Hui 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.” 

Assessing cognitive function

To get a sense of how cognitive function changed over time, the researchers analyzed nearly two decades worth of data from the Health and Retirement Survey. This included responses from over 30,000 participants. As part of the study, participants completed various assessments that evaluated their mental sharpness. 

In looking at the results, the researchers learned that baby boomers were outperformed by earlier generations taking similar cognition tests at the same age. 

“Baby boomers are already starting to have lower cognition scores than earlier generations at age 50 to 54,” said Zheng. 

The researchers dug a little deeper to determine what was causing these lower scores, and identified several risk factors that could affect cognitive functioning. Losing a spouse, low physical activity levels, poor heart health, and an overall feeling of loneliness were all major players in the participants’ declining cognition. 

“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 explained. 

What this means for the future

Moving forward, the researchers are concerned about what these findings could mean for dementia and Alzheimer’s diagnoses in the coming years. 

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

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