A nationwide study revealed an unexpected reversal of trends: The American ‘Baby Boomer’ generation scored lower in large-scale cognitive testing than members of older generations.
The cognitive health of adults aged 50 or older has traditionally improved from one generation to another. American Baby Boomers mark the first reversal in that trend: The generation born between 1948 and 1959 are showing unexpectedly lower cognitive function in their 60s and early 70s than their predecessors.
Hui Zheng, lead author of a nationwide study published this summer in Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, surveyed 30,191 American participants of the 1996–2014 Health and Retirement Study and found a decline in cognitive functioning in all groups of Boomers regardless of gender, race, education or income level.
Between 1996 and 2014, the researchers administered a 35-point cognitive test every two years to people over 51 years old. Participants completed cognitive screens in which they performed various task such as recalling words they had heard earlier, counting down from 100 by 7s, and naming objects they were shown.
Findings showed that average cognition scores of adults aged 50 and older increased from generation to generation, beginning with the Greatest Generation (b. 1890-1923) and peaking among War Babies (b. 1942-1947). Scores began to decline in the early Baby Boomers (b. 1948-1953) and decreased further in the mid Baby Boomers (b. 1954-1959).
The researchers found slightly lower declines among the wealthiest and most highly educated of the cohort, but the differences weren’t notable enough to offset that Boomers’ cognitive health sets them apart.
“Baby boomers already start having lower cognition scores than earlier generations at age 50 to 54,” Zheng, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University, said in a news release. “It is shocking to see this decline in cognitive functioning among Baby Boomers after generations of increases in test scores.”
Often, poor cognitive conditions in adulthood are linked to childhood health and lifestyle factors, but Zheng said Boomers’ childhood health was as good as or better than previous generations and that they generally came from families of higher socioeconomic status with higher levels of education, which can impact cognitive health in the long run.
Zheng added that he did not expect to find that these factors would have little to no bearing on test performance within the Boomer group: “The decline in cognitive functioning that we’re seeing does not come from poorer childhood conditions,” Zheng said. “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 declines were only slightly lower among the wealthiest and most highly educated.”
Zheng’s team also compared cognition scores within each age group across generations so that scores were not skewed by older people who tend to have poorer cognition. Even in this analysis, Boomers scored lowest as a group.
What Factors Are Affecting Boomer Brain Health?
Lower wealth, living without a spouse, being married more than once in their lives, having psychiatric problems and physical health issues including cardiovascular risk factors like strokes, hypertension, heart disease and diabetes are all Alzheimer’s and dementia risk factors, and were all also found by Zheng to be associated with lower cognitive function among Boomer study participants.
“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,” he said.
While the prevalence of dementia has declined recently in the U.S., Zheng said the data suggests this trend may reverse in the decades to come.