Baby boomers score lower on cognitive functioning than members of previous generations, study finds

American baby boomers scored lower on a test of cognitive functioning than did members of previous generations, according to a new nationwide study by researchers at Ohio State University.

The study’s author, Hui Zheng, an associate professor at the university, researched data from over 30,000 Americans who participated in the 1996 to 2014 Health and Retirement Study, conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

The study, published in the Journals of Gerontology, described how the average cognition scores of adults aged 51 and older have been improving from generation to generation, starting with the greatest generation (born 1890-1923) to war babies (born 1942-1947).

But the study showed there were significant declines in the scores for early baby boomers (1948-1953) through the mid-baby boomers (1954-1959).

"Cognitive functioning may continue declining since baby boomers if no effective interventions and policy responses are in place, which may cause the prevalence of dementia to substantially increase in the coming decades," Zheng said. 

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Participants were asked to complete a cognitive test in which they had to recall words they had heard earlier, count backward, name objects they were shown and perform other tasks. The summary cognition score ranged from 0 to 35, with a greater number points reflecting better cognitive functioning. 

The university said Zheng also compared cognitive scores within each age group across generations so that scores would not be skewed by older participants with poor cognition.

Even with that comparison, baby boomers still had the lowest scores.

Why Baby Boomers?

Zheng looked for indicators and similar patterns across the participants in the study.

"Cognitive functioning has declined in Baby Boomers after several decades of favorable trend from the Greatest Generation to War Babies, and this decline is universal for all the subgroups (gender, race, education, income, wealth)," Zheng said. 

The biggest factors linked to the worsening of cognitive functioning among baby boomers were lower household wealth and lower likelihood of marriage, according to the study.

Higher levels of loneliness, depression, participation in psychiatric programs and cardiovascular risks were also cited as factors.

The study’s findings showed that lower cognitive functioning levels did not originate from one’s childhood conditions, adult education or occupation.

The pattern of cognitive decline among baby boomers was observed across all types of groups, including genders, race, ethnicities, education groups, occupations, and income and wealth brackets.

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While the prevalence of dementia has declined recently in the United States, the study said those trends may reverse in the coming decades.

The biggest takeaway? Zheng said this is not an irreversible trend. "Besides the necessary actions from government and health care system, everyone can improve their cognitive health by investing in saving money, improving diet and physical activity, making social connections, and being mindful of mental health," Zheng said.