For generations, Americans of reasoning and memory – known as cognitive function – got better and better, until the baby boomers came, new research suggests.
Data on more than 30,000 people of six generations shows that early and middle child boomers, born between 1948 and 1959, show more signs of mental decline than their parent or grandparent generations.
Decreasing cognitive function is an early warning sign of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, that is already depriving more than five million Americans of their memories and autonomy.
Researchers at Ohio State University blame the deterioration of mental function on greater poverty and loneliness and more depression and health problems such as obesity and high blood pressure, which endanger both the heart and the brain.
People in the pair of boomer generations are now between the ages of 62 and 72, and signs of cognitive decline may be a bell that the crippling prevalence of Alzheimer’s in the U.S. will only increase as they age.
Cognitive function scores decreased among aged baby boomers compared to war babies or the largest generation, according to research from Ohio State University, indicating they may have more dementia.
The children of the Great Depression were born between 1924 and 1930 and were raised by parents in the throes of the worst financial crisis the US has ever experienced.
Financial woes meant more stress, less family or government investment in education, and worse.
The number of abandoned children rose to the mid-1930s, and an unprecedented number of families could hardly afford to feed their children, leading to malnutrition which in turn can impair cognitive development and functioning later in life.
But parents also had fewer children, a decision that often leads to better care and investment for a smaller number of children in a household.
Meanwhile, Franklin D. Roosevelt took office and changed the course of the Hoover administration, which had more or less overlooked the impact of the Great Depression on Children.
A large federal aid program and initiatives aimed at bringing food and healthcare to even the poorest of the poor, most rural children in America were launched as part of the New Deal, and children’s conditions began to improve favorably for mental development.
Education level and occupation have improved over the generations, so the OSU study suggests that they are not associated with declining mental function
While men and whites in the U.S. have numerous benefits in the U.S., neither of the trendlines suggests explaining cognitive declines
From then on, things generally improved for the American spirit – from childhood development to retirement maintenance.
Until the baby boomers approached old age.
The new study, published in the Journals of Gerontology, reviewed data on tens of thousands of Americans from ongoing Health and Retirement Study (HRS).
The HRS adds a sample of people of a new generation as they approach retirement age.
As part of enrolling in the HRS, participants will receive a 35-piece battery of cognitive tests.
Scores were, perhaps unsurprisingly, lowest of the earliest cohort, the Greatest Generation (born between 1890 and 1923) scored lowest on these tests at 8/19.
Cognitive function peaked at age 51 among the war babies (born between 1942 and 1947).
But it fell again to the baby boomers, dropping to 22.69 by the time the mid-baby boomers (born between 1954 and 1959) were tested.
Dr. Hui Zheng, the study’s sole author, found that childhood experiences suggested that at least boomers should have had better brain health and cognitive function than their parents or grandparents.
Alzheimer’s rates have been more stable among younger generations, but the new data suggests they could rise with boomers
Household incomes and wealth have declined, which explains a significant part of the change in cognitive function, according to the study
Even elements of adulthood – such as a high number of white collar jobs and more years of training – should have encouraged baby boomers for better brain health.
But other factors outweighed these benefits.
Despite the kind of work they did and the education they received, more baby boomers fell into lower household wealth for their generation compared to the largest generation or war babies.
And socially, they are more lonely and less likely to get married, which contributes to mental health problems that can take away cognitive health.
Baby boomers also have some unhealthy habits that are not as common. in previous generations.
Compared to war babies or the largest generation, baby boomers were more likely to be obese, whose inflammation can also harm the brain.
But lack of exercise was responsible for an even greater part of the inequality between baby boomers’ cognitive health and that of their predecessors.
“This decline may ignore favorable trends in dementia as baby boomers age and cognitive impairment tends to become more common if there are no effective interventions and policy responses,” Dr. Zheng wrote.
Measures, such as increasing financial support, promoting social relationships, encouraging physical activity, and treating psychiatric and cardiovascular disease, can pay off to slow or even potentially dementia in the coming decades to prevent.