Baby boomers in the US are showing a steeper decline in cognitive function compared to previous generations, according to a new study.
The findings may perhaps come as a surprise since people born between 1948 to 1959 are often said to have led easier lives with more education, better access to healthcare, and better job prospects than the generations before them. However, the new research appears to reveal some of the pitfalls that modern living in the US can have on our health and mental sharpness.
Reported in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, researchers looked at the average cognition scores of over 30,000 adults in the US aged 50 and older. The scores were then broken down by generations: the Greatest Generation (born 1890 to 1923), the Early Children of Depression (born 1924 to 1930), the Late Children of Depression (born 1931 to 1941), the War Babies (born 1942 to 1947), the Early-Baby Boomers (born 1948 to 1953), and the Mid-Baby Boomers (born 1954 to 1959).
Cognitive sharpness appeared to improve generation after generation, starting with the so-called greatest generation (born 1890-1923) and peaking among war babies (born 1942-1947). However, scores started to slip in the early baby boomers (born 1948-1953) and further decreased in the mid-baby boomers (born 1954-1959). This remained true across people from all races, ethnicities, education levels, and financial wealth.
“It is shocking to see this decline in cognitive functioning among baby boomers after generations of increases in test scores,” Hui Zheng, study author and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, said in a statement.
“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.”
So, what could explain this trend? The researchers suggest that the lower cognition scores among baby boomers in the study were most likely a reflection of lower wealth, higher levels of self-reported loneliness and depression, and lack of physical activity and obesity. Many of these factors have previously been associated with declines in cognitive function. For all the positives of being born between 1948 to 1959, it appears these factors outweigh the good when it comes to cognitive function in the latter years.
“Part of the story here are the problems of modern life, but it is also about life in the US,” explained Zheng.
“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,” they added.
But younger generations shouldn’t be too smug. Given that many of these factors have only intensified in recent decades, the findings indicate that cognitive function could fall even further when today’s young adults reach their older years.