A Study Shows Older People are Now Smarter but Less Fit

Trends in technology and increasing wealth improve health due to greater access to better forms of medicine, but also tend to produce a fatter, less fit older population, a consequence of the broadening range of attractive and affordable transportation devices and calories. Gains from medicine compete in many people with the losses due to diminished personal fitness. This is very noticeable in countries like South Korea where the transition from poverty to wealth was rapid, taking place over just a handful of decades. Here researchers show similar trends in European populations:

People over age 50 are scoring increasingly better on tests of cognitive function, according to a new study. 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. It found that cognitive test scores increased significantly within the 6-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.

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. "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 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." The studies both provide confirmation of the "Flynn effect" - a trend in rising performance in standard IQ tests from generation to generation. The studies show that changes in education levels in the population can explain part, but not all of the effect. "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."

Link: http://www.iiasa.ac.at/web/home/about/news/150831-pop-PLOSONE.html


A large population of smart, relatively long-lived but sick individuals is going to become a problem.

Posted by: Daniel Lemire at September 1st, 2015 4:29 PM

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