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

Data from 2,800 participants (aged 65+) in the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study has revealed that one type of cognitive training benefits less-educated people more than it does the more-educated.

A study involving 266 people with mild cognitive impairment (aged 70+) has found that B vitamins are more effective in slowing cognitive decline when people have higher omega 3 levels.

Growing research has implicated infections as a factor in age-related cognitive decline, but these have been cross-sectional (comparing different individuals, who will have a number of other, possibly confounding, attributes).

Another study adds to the growing evidence that a Mediterranean diet is good for the aging brain.

A two-year study which involved metabolic testing of 50 people, suggests that Alzheimer's disease consists of three distinct subtypes, each one of which may need to be treated differently. The finding may help explain why it has been so hard to find effective treatments for the disease.

A study involving both mice and human cells adds to evidence that stress is a risk factor for Alzheimer's.

Data from 23,572 Americans from the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study has revealed that those who survived a stroke went on to have significantly faster rates of cognitive decline as they aged.

A study involving 382 older adults (average age 75) followed for around five years, has found that those who don’t get enough vitamin D may experience cognitive decline at a much faster rate than people who have adequate vitamin D.

Training in a mental imagery technique has been found to help multiple sclerosis patients in two memory domains often affected by the disease: autobiographical memory and episodic future thinking.

A study involving 218 participants aged 18-88 has looked at the effects of age on the brain activity of participants viewing an edited version of a 1961 Hitchcock TV episode (given that participants viewed the movie while in a MRI machine, the 25 minute episode was condensed to 8 minutes).


Subscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest health news