It is the rare person over the age of 50 who can’t relate to those senior moments when they can’t remember a person’s name or have to search for the right word that is on the tip of their tongue. While marginal cognitive decline is normal and expected, there is troubling news about the baby boomer generation and cognitive functioning scores. There is reason to believe that for the first time since the greatest Generation (1890-1923), baby boomers show a decline in cognitive abilities when compared to previous generations.
The Study Details
Findings were based on the analysis of data provided by the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Survey results that were generated between 1996 and 2014. The sample group was comprised of 30,191 people, 51 years of age and older, living in the U.S. The participants were retested every two years.
The tests used in the study involved performing relatively simple tasks such as naming different objects, remembering a random series of words and counting back from 100 by seven. Today, many Medicare physicals use a similar test to assess cognitive abilities in senior patients.
Cognitive functioning is evaluated based on a 35-point score. Linear models provide data that facilitates the comparison and analysis of variables to identify trends. Finally, the Karlson-Holm-Breen decomposition method is utilized as an analytical tool to study how each variable contributes to Cognitive Functioning (CF) trends.
The data was evaluated in search of possible causes to explain the results. Variables such as nutrition, family background, socioeconomic status as an adult, childhood health, psychosocial factors, and diseases were analyzed.
How Baby Boomers Compare to their Parent’s Generation
There are some interesting study findings that define and distinguish the baby boomer generation, providing possible insights into why cognitive functioning is comparatively lower for this age group. While worsening cognitive decline is not good news for the country or this population of seniors, there were both advantages and disadvantages associated with boomers when compared to their predecessors who were Late Children of the Depression.
- Higher education levels attained
- More likely to work in white collar jobs
- Less likely to smoke
- Lower incidence of lung disease
- Lower incidence of arthritis
- Better childhood health
- Less likely to be married
- Less likely to regularly workout vigorously
- Have more chronic diseases
- Less wealth accumulation
- Less likely to have a religious affiliation
- Higher rates of loneliness
- More likely to have psychiatric problems
- More likely to be obese
- More cardiovascular risk factors
Possible Explanations for Cognitive Decline
One of the conclusions derived from this study is that boomers’ lower household wealth as compared to their parents’ generation accounts for about 10 to 15% of their lower cognitive abilities. Having less wealth not only equates to fewer resources but also means they have a lower status or rank in the U.S. world order. This factor coincides with higher levels of stress.
While wealth is considered to be a significant cause of increased cognitive decline, a lack of marriage stability or being single is believed to be another contributor. Kiplinger published Pew Center Research findings which cite a divorce rate that has doubled since the 1990s for senior adults over 50.
This troubling statistic likely explains why boomers experience higher levels of depression, loneliness and psychiatric issues. Since depression impacts a person’s work, relationships, household, and social roles, it is not surprising that researchers correlate this mental disorder with cognitive decline.
NCBI reports that the risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity have been identified as health issues that result in cognitive decline. Considering the higher incidence of these health problems in the boomer population, it is not surprising that this generation is showing worse results than earlier age groups on cognitive tests as they age.
Proactive Lifestyle Changes to Improve Cognitive Function
In spite of the study’s findings that are cause for alarm in baby boomer circles, there is some good news here. It is clear that there are proactive steps that boomers can take to promote healthy brain health.
Below are some steps every boomer should take.
1. Focus on getting a good night’s sleep.
2. Reduce stress in your life.
3. Maintain a healthy BMI or weight.
4. Monitor cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure and cholesterol.
5. Exercise regularly.
6. Avoid information overload by turning off the computer, cell phone and TV to relax.
7. Eat a healthy diet that is low in sugar.
8. Seek professional help with mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.
9. Drink moderately or not at all.
10. Stop smoking.
11. Exercise your brain by reading, doing puzzles or any other mental activity.
Related Societal Implications
If the current trend of lower cognitive scores continues for baby boomers, society should prepare for the possibility of higher rates of dementia in the next decade as boomers age. Addressing this looming societal problem through educating the public is one way to get seniors to take steps now to slow cognitive decline through better lifestyle choices. Similar to the way smoking has been reduced significantly through education about the risks this habit poses, the government and doctors can steer boomers in the right direction to ward off dementia.
Baby boomers have the knowledge they need to improve their brain health. With the writing on the wall about trends, it is more important than ever for U.S. society to react to prevent a dementia tsunami led by the baby boomers. Individuals, governments and the medical community need to respond to address the growing problem of cognitive decline for aging baby boomers and the generations that follow.