Lately, it seems there’s been a lot of scientific study attempting to assess your risk of dementia.
Recently, we reported on a Harvard University study that found some great news: dementia rates for people over age 65 have been falling across the U.S. and Europe over the last quarter century.
But a new analysis published in July, suggests this trend will soon reverse.
According to this research, if you’re among the Early Baby Boomers, those born between 1948 and 1953, your generation has less brain power than those born 50 years before you, between 1890 and 1947.
If that’s not bad enough, if you’re a Mid-Baby Boomer, born between 1954 and 1959, the decline in your cognition will drop even further. Let’s see what we can make of this new research and what it really means for your memory.
With an aging population, cases of Alzheimer’s and other dementias are expected to increase rapidly in the decades ahead, and that’s no surprise.
HuiZheng, from Ohio State University, dug into data from 30,191 nationally representative men and women over the age of 50 who, every two years, took part in the 1996-2014 Health and Retirement Study. This provides a wealth of economic, health and psychosocial information.
Part of the study involves a battery of cognitive tests such as recalling a list of words after a lapse of 15 minutes and counting down from 100 by sevens (that last one can be hard even when you’re of sound mind).
The Greatest Generation Were Great in Memory, Too
The results showed that cognitive function improved in people born in the Greatest Generation (1890-1923) and peaked among War Babies (1942-1947). From then on, brain power went downhill.
“It is shocking to see this decline in cognitive functioning among baby boomers after generations of increases in test scores,” said a surprised professor 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.”
To make sure his analysis wasn’t skewed by older people with poorer cognition, Prof. Zheng compared scores across the age range within each generation.
It made no difference.
“Baby boomers already start having lower cognition scores than earlier generations at age 50 to 54,” he said.
There weren’t enough Late Baby Boomers (1960-1964) to include in the study, but professor Zheng believes they won’t fare any better and this is likely to be true for later generations.
Why Cognitive Abilities are Shrinking
Baby boomers’ childhood health and education was as good or better than previous generations. What’s more, they came from families with a higher socioeconomic status than their ancestors. They also had better occupations. So what explains their diminishing cognitive function?
Prof. Zheng’s analysis cannot provide a definitive answer as to why this decline in cognition is taking place, but his findings did link it to a number of lifestyle factors.
Baby boomers had lower overall household wealth and lower physical activity levels, coupled with higher levels of obesity, depression, loneliness and psychiatric problems.
Other factors included being unmarried, being married more than once, and having cardiovascular risk factors such as strokes, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
“If it weren’t for their better childhood health,” Prof. Zheng added, “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.”
“Part of the story,” he believes, “(is) the problems of modern life, but it is also about life in the U.S.” An example of this, he suggests, is the lack of universal access to health care and its high cost.
Some Other Possible Reasons
I can think of likely risk factors he doesn’t mention. One is the advent of the drug culture, which started in the 1960s and had a huge effect on the baby boomer generation. Another possibility is television, which also changed society in ways you can’t imagine if you aren’t old enough to remember the transition.
My unscientific opinion is that watching a lot of television makes you passive and stupid. And people watch a lot of TV – four-and-a-half hours a day for the average American.
He does mention obesity and the decline in physical activity, but he may underrate them. I can remember when literally almost everyone was thin and fit, and large numbers of people still engaged in work that was physically demanding.
And I’ll throw in a wild card – smoking was probably far more common in the older generations. If you look at old movies it can seem like everyone smoked! Baby Boomers were the first generation to make a concerted effort to quit smoking. As it happens, nicotine is a powerful stimulant and energizer, and also helps you keep your weight down. I sure don’t advocate smoking, but it’s a fact that it had some favorable outcomes.
Professor Zheng concludes by saying, “With the aging population in the United States, we were already likely to see an increase in the number of people with dementia. But this study suggests it may be worse than we expected for decades to come.”
My takeaway is that while this news certainly isn’t good, these study results don’t have to be set in stone, either. While perhaps you can’t do anything about your “household wealth,” you can increase your levels of physical activity, improve your diet to lose excess weight, and seek professional help for depression or other psychiatric problems that could damage your memory.
I’m a staunch believer that it’s almost never too late to take action to sharpen your memory and save your cognitive function from slipping away.