Seniors are smarter, but not fitter, than in previous generations, says study

Life has become more cognitively more demanding, thus senior citizens are doing better in cognitive tests. — AFP pic
Life has become more cognitively more demanding, thus senior citizens are doing better in cognitive tests. — AFP pic

LOS ANGELES, Sept 2 — People over 50 years old are scoring better on cognitive tests than those the same age did in years past, however their physical health has declined, according to a new study.

The intelligence upswing could be attributable to increasing education rates and use of technology, say the population researchers, hailing from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

“Life has become cognitively more demanding, with increasing use of communication and information technology also by older people, and people working longer in intellectually demanding jobs,” says study author and IIASA World Population Program researcher Nadia Steiber. “At the same time, we are seeing a decline in physical activity and rising levels of obesity.”

Working with representative survey data from Germany measuring cognitive processing speed, physical aptitude and mental health in 2006 and 2012, the research team concluded that cognitive scores had undergone a significant increase across both genders and all ages between 50 and 90 years.

On the flip side, physical functioning and mental health had declined, most notably for less educated men between 50 and 64 years of age, according to the study that was published in PLoS One.

Survey data represented Germans who were not institutionalized, and who were deemed mentally and physically able to take the tests measuring cognition and assessing physical mobility in terms of the ease of performing tasks such as ascending a staircase and lifting objects.

Measuring age in terms of an individual’s characteristics rather than the number of years they have been alive is a new focus of the IIASA, and cognition is of particular interest because it has been observed to decline with age.

The IIASA has for a mission to learn how and why different population groups age more gracefully than others.

The current study is among the first to detect a decline in fitness, a cause for concern, whereas previous studies have demonstrated all-round increasingly good health for today’s elderly compared to that of previous generations.

Another study from the IIASA, published last week in the journal Intelligence, also indicated that the elderly’s cognition is improving—this time in England.

“On average, test scores of people aged 50+ today correspond to test scores from people four to eight years younger and tested six years earlier,” says Valeria Bordone, a researcher at IIASA and the affiliated Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital.

It’s called the “Flynn effect” and it reflects increasing performance in standard IQ tests as the generations pass, and while higher education rates can reasonably explain part of it, the reason for the Flynn effect is not fully understood in entirety.

“We show for the first time that although compositional changes of the older population in terms of education partly explain the Flynn effect, the increasing use of modern technology such as computers and mobile phones in the first decade of the 2000s also contributes considerably to its explanation,” says Bordone.

Further research is required to find out whether the Flynn effect is present in populations other than Germany and England. —AFP-Relaxnews

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