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Older People Are Getting Smarter, But Not Fitter

Older populations are scoring better on cognitive tests than people of the same age did in the past — a trend that could be linked to higher education rates and increased use of technology in our daily lives, say population researchers at International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. The study was published in August 2015 in the journal PLOS ONE.

A release from the institute notes that people over age 50 are scoring increasingly better on tests of cognitive function. At the same time, however, the study showed that average physical health of the older population has declined.

The study relied on representative survey data from Germany, which measured cognitive processing speed, physical fitness, and mental health in 2006 and again in 2012. The team found that cognitive test scores increased significantly within the six year period for men and women and at all ages from 50 to 90 years, while physical functioning and mental health declined, especially for low-educated men aged 50-64. The survey data was representative of the non-institutionalized German population, mentally and physically able to participate in the tests.

In recent years, population experts at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) have been exploring new ways to measure age that focus on people’s characteristics rather than the number of years they have lived. Cognition normally begins to decline with age, and is one key characteristic that demographers use to understand how different population groups age more successfully than others.

Previous studies have found elderly people to be in increasingly good health–“younger” in many ways than previous generations at the same chronological age–with physical and cognitive measures all showing improvement over time. The new study is the first to show divergent trends over time between cognitive and physical function.

The release quotes IIASA World Population Program researcher Nadia Steiber, author of the PLOS ONE study, as saying, “We think that these divergent results can be explained by changing lifestyles. 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. At the same time, we are seeing a decline in physical activity and rising levels of obesity.”

A second study from IIASA population researchers, published last week in the journal Intelligence found similar results suggesting that older people have become smarter also in England.

“On average, test scores of people aged 50+ today correspond to test scores from people 4-8 years younger and tested 6 years earlier,” says Valeria Bordone, a researcher at IIASA and the affiliated Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital.


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