For generations, Americans’ of reasoning and memory – known as cognitive function – got better and better, until the baby boomers came along, new research suggests. 

Data on more than 30,000 people spanning six generations reveals that early- and mid-baby boomers, who were born between 1948 and 1959, show more signs of mental decline than did their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. 

Declining cognitive function is an early warning sign of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, which is already depriving more than five million Americans of their memories and autonomy. 

Researchers at Ohio State University blame the decline in mental function on greater poverty and loneliness and higher rates of depression and health problems like obesity and high blood pressure, which put both the heart and the brain at risk. 

People in the pair of boomer generations are now between ages 62 and and 72, and signs of cognitive decline could be a bellwether that the crippling prevalence of Alzheimer’s in the US is only going to swell as they enter old-age. 

Cognitive function scores declined among aging baby boomers compared to war babies or the greatest generation, Ohio State University research found, signaling they could have higher rates of dementia

Cognitive function scores declined among aging baby boomers compared to war babies or the greatest generation, Ohio State University research found, signaling they could have higher rates of 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 seen.

Financial woes meant more stress, less family or governmental investment in education and worse. 

Rates of child desertion climbed into the mid 1930s, and an unprecedented number of families could scarcely afford to feed their children, leading to malnutrition which,  in turn, can impair cognitive development and function later in life. 

However, parents were also having fewer children, a decision which often leads to better care for and investment for a smaller number of kids in a household. 

Meanwhile, Franklin D Roosevelt took office and changed the course set by the Hoover administration which had more or less turned a blind eye the impact of the Great Depression on Children. 

A major federal relief programs as well as initiatives focused on bringing food and healthcare to even poorest, most rural children in America were launched as part of the New Deal, and childhood conditions began to improve favorably to mental development. 

Education levels and occupation have improved over the generations, so the OSU study suggests these are not associated with declining mental function

Education levels and occupation have improved over the generations, so the OSU study suggests these are not associated with declining mental function 

Although men and white people in the US have myriad advantages in the US, the trend lines do not suggest either of these explain cognitive declines

Although men and white people in the US have myriad advantages in the US, the trend lines do not suggest either of these explain cognitive declines

From then on, things by and large improved for the American mind – from development in childhood all the way through to maintenance at retirement age. 

Until the baby boomers started approaching old age. 

The new study, published in the Journals of Gerontology, assessed data on tens of thousands of Americans from ongoing Health and Retirement Study (HRS). 

The HRS adds a sample of people from a new generation as they approach retirement age. 

As part of enrollment in the HRS, participants are given a 35-part battery of cognitive tests. 

Scores were, perhaps unsurprisingly, lowest among the earliest cohort, the Greatest Generation (born between 1890 and 1923) scored lowest ton these tets at 19.08. 

Cognitive function at age 51 peaked among the war babies (born between 1942 and 1947).

But it fell again with the baby boomers, declining 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 boomers should, if anything, have had better brain health and cognitive function than their parents or grandparents. 

Alzheimer's rates have been more stable in younger generations, but the new data suggests they could climb with boomers

Alzheimer’s rates have been more stable in younger generations, but the new data suggests they could climb with boomers 

Incomes and household wealth have dipped, which the study suggests account for a considerable proportion of the change in cognitive function

Incomes and household wealth have dipped, which the study suggests account for a considerable proportion of the change in cognitive function 

Even elements of adulthood – such as high rates of white collar jobs and more years of education – should have set baby boomers up for better brain health. 

But other factors outweighed these advantages. 

Despite the type of work they did and the education they’d received more baby boomers fell into lower household wealth brackets for their generation compared to the greatest generation or war babies. 

And socially, they are lonelier and less likely to be married, adding to psychological distress that can chip away at cognitive health. 

Baby boomers also have some unhealthy habits not seen at such rates. in previous generations. 

Compared to war babies or the greatest generation, baby boomers were more likely to be obese, inflammation from which may also harm the brain. 

But lack of physical activity accounted for an even larger portion of the disparity between baby boomers’ cognitive health and that of their predecessors. 

‘This decline may potentially reverse past favorable trends in dementia as baby boomers reach older ages and cognitive impairment becomes more common if no effective interventions and policy responses are in place,’ wrote Dr Zheng. 

‘Measures, such as increasing financial support, promoting social relationships, encouraging physical activities, and treating psychiatric and cardiovascular diseases, may well pay off in slowing or even preventing the potential increase in dementia in the decades to come 



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