[ weird things ] | american boomers are experiencing an alarming cognitive decline. we should all worry.

american boomers are experiencing an alarming cognitive decline. we should all worry.

This isn’t just younger generations griping, according to a study of over 30,000 baby boomers, the older generations’ mental capabilities are declining faster than expected.
boomer man on subway
Photo illustration by Oliver Cole

Nothing lasts forever. Eventually even the healthiest and smartest person’s brain will see an appreciable decline in memory and processing, but since the Greatest Generation born at the very end of the 19th century, researchers have seen better and better scores on cognition and memory tests given to those 50 and older. Unfortunately, when the tests were administered to 30,191 baby boomers between 1996 and 2014, the results showed a tumble even among the youngest test subjects. And that has gerontologists worried about increases of dementia cases in the near future, not to mention the sinister implications of the wealthiest and most politically dominant generation today losing its mental grip.

According to new research, there’s a whole parade of horribles likely to be responsible for the worsening scores. Lack of social mobility, increase in self-reported depression, loneliness, lower educational attainment, lack of exercise, and cardiovascular problems, along with having been divorced, all strongly correlated with lower cognitive performance. If the boomers didn’t have the sanitation, vaccines, physical activities in schools, easier access to post-secondary education, and more gainful employment opportunities as adults, their scores would’ve been even worse, said the Ohio State University researcher who analyzed the data. Extrapolating the full context of these findings to younger generations paints an even scarier picture.

Over the last 70 years or so, we created a world that seems to be awful for both our bodies and minds. We work ourselves into a stupor to make ends meet, but as a result we end up with less to show for it. Each generation is becoming lonelier and more isolated than the last, filling voids caused by a lack of friends and acquaintances with social media, their empathy blunted in the process, and with some falling down self-destructive rabbit holes of conspiracy theories which alienate older generations from younger family members. All work, no play, little to no safety net in nations under the spell of retrograde cargo cult economics, and constantly battling another seemingly existential crisis is literally sucking the life out of us.

There’s also research suggesting that exposure to lead in paint and gasoline, as well as higher levels of air pollution may have played a part in this since both are associated with declines in cognition, increase in mental health problems, and various physical comorbidities what leave victims with lower life expectancy and high risks of chronic disease and cancers. This is why slashing environmental regulations can be so dangerous, and it’s ironic that anti-environmental stances are being pushed primarily by the generation most adversely affected by pollution. In the meantime, lack of regulation on certain chemicals is adversely impacting the reproductive health of millenials and Gen Z in an unnerving parallel.

While it may be tempting to frame this as just another example of boomers’ choices backfiring in a spectacular manner and on society at large since they’re still the most politically powerful and wealthiest generation with both the ability and inclination to stop and reverse vital changes that we need to make as societies, this study is a blaring klaxon warning all of us yet again that what we’re doing is unsustainable and dangerous. We really need to have some honest and in depth conversations on where we see our societies going, and start implementing the plans drawn up to modernize everything from infrastructure and cities, to jobs and social safety nets so we can avoid the gloomy fate of working ourselves into early graves.

See: Hui Zheng. (2020) A New Look at Cohort Trend and Underlying Mechanisms in Cognitive Functioning. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gbaa107

# health // aging / boomers / cognition

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