70-year-olds smarter than they used to be

November, 2010

Findings from a large Swedish study are consistent with the hypothesis that more education and better healthcare have produced less cognitive impairment in present-day older adults.

Beginning in 1971, healthy older adults in Gothenburg, Sweden, have been participating in a longitudinal study of their cognitive health. The first H70 study started in 1971 with 381 residents of Gothenburg who were 70 years old; a new one began in 2000 with 551 residents and is still ongoing. For the first cohort (born in 1901-02), low scores on non-memory tests turned out to be a good predictor of dementia; however, these tests were not predictive for the generation born in 1930. Those from the later cohort also performed better in the intelligence tests at age 70 than their predecessors had.

It’s suggested that the higher intelligence is down to the later cohort’s better pre and postnatal care, better nutrition, higher quality education, and better treatment of high blood pressure and cholesterol. And possibly the cognitive demands of modern life.

Nevertheless, the researchers reported that the incidence of dementia at age 75 was little different (5% in the first cohort and 4.4% in the later). However, since a substantially greater proportion of the first cohort were dead by that age (15.7% compared to 4.4% of the 2nd cohort), it seems quite probable that there really was a higher incidence of dementia in the earlier cohort.

The fact that low scores on non-memory cognitive tests were predictive in the first cohort of both dementia and death by age 75 supports this argument.

The fact that low scores on non-memory cognitive tests were not predictive of dementia or death in the later cohort is in keeping with the evidence that higher levels of education help delay dementia. We will need to wait for later findings from this study to see whether that is what is happening.

The findings are not inconsistent with those from a very large U.S. national study that found older adults (70+) are now less likely to be cognitively impaired (see below). It was suggested then also that better healthcare and more education were factors behind this decline in the rate of cognitive impairment.

Previous study:

A new nationally representative study involving 11,000 people shows a downward trend in the rate of cognitive impairment among people aged 70 and older, from 12.2% to 8.7% between 1993 and 2002. It’s speculated that factors behind this decline may be that today’s older people are much likelier to have had more formal education, higher economic status, and better care for risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking that can jeopardize their brains. In fact the data suggest that about 40% of the decrease in cognitive impairment over the decade was likely due to the increase in education levels and personal wealth between the two groups of seniors studied at the two time points. The trend is consistent with a dramatic decline in chronic disability among older Americans over the past two decades.


Related News

Following on from a previous study showing that such a virtual supermarket game administered by a trained professional can detect

Data from the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study, involving 6,467 postmenopausal women (65+) who reported some level of caffeine consumption, has found that those who consumed above average amounts of coffee had a lower risk of developing dementia.

Our bodies’ ability to regulate its temperature gets worse with age, along with a slowing metabolism. We also become more vulnerable to Alzheimer's as we age. A study compared mice genetically engineered to manifest Alzheimer's symptoms as they age with normal mice.

People with Alzheimer's disease develop problems in recognizing familiar faces. It has been thought that this is just part of their general impairment, but a new study indicates that a specific, face-related impairment develops early in the disease.

Data from 876 patients (average age 78) in the 30-year Cardiovascular Health Study show that virtually any type of aerobic physical activity can improve brain volume and reduce Alzheimer's risk.

A study involving 100 older adults (aged 80-99) with hearing loss has found that those who used a hearing aid performed significantly better on a cognitive test (MMSE) than those who didn't use a hearing aid, despite having poorer hearing.

A study involving 65 older adults (average age 66), of whom 35 had type 2 diabetes, has found that after two years, those with diabetes had decreases in their ability to regulate blood flow in the brain, and a reduced ability to regulate blood flow was associated with lower cognitive scores.

A small study that fitted 29 young adults (18-31) and 31 older adults (55-82) with a device that recorded steps taken and the vigor and speed with which they were made, has found that those older adults with a higher step rate performed better on memory tasks than those who were more sedentary.

As we all know, people are living longer and obesity is at appalling levels. For both these (completely separate!) reasons, we expect to see growing rates of dementia. A new analysis using data from the long-running Framingham Heart Study offers some hope to individuals, however.

A study involving 39 older adults has found that those randomly assigned to a “high-challenge” group showed improved cognitive performance and more efficient brain activity compared with those assigned to a low-challenge group, or a control group.


Subscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest health news