Baby Boomers and cognitive decline: problems and solutions

When we talk about baby boomers we refer to those who, born between 1946 and 1964 in North America or Europe, are currently between 56 and 74 years old. The definition of Baby Boomers comes from the high level of population increase that occurred at that time, an increase that went hand in hand with economic growth and substantial social changes.

Those born between the second half of the 1960s and early 1980s are defined as Generation X, while those born between 1981 and 1996 are part of the so-called Generation Y or Millennial generation. In the United States, Millennials accounted for the majority of the population in 2019, followed by Baby Boomers.

Between these generations there are marked differences, in particular regarding the way of dealing with life and also and above all work, although it should not be forgotten that each generational period occupies about twenty years so even within the group there may be marked age differences.

Baby boomers are a generation particularly oriented to work and the consequent career, the typical representative appears in fact almost like a workaholic, enterprising and possessing entrepreneurial characteristics. In the face of this they appear to be unwilling to change and decidedly competitive. They are generally regarded as not very adaptable and not very skilled with regard to technology, especially new technologies, and this tends to have negative effects precisely in the area that interests them most, namely the work sector.

Millennials, unlike the Baby Boomers, do not, for example, show an attachment to work like the latter, but, in the face of this, they tend to be very interested in both ethical and social issues.

Currently, it seems that U.S. Baby Boomers, although they often tend to occupy more prominent positions than other generations, are affected by what we can call “age discrimination“. Although The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 effectively prohibits age discrimination, the majority of workers, aged 45 to 74, included in the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) study, felt that they had experienced discrimination on the basis of this very parameter.

«Approximately two third (64%) of older workers say they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. »[1]

The study published in The Journals of Gerontology[2] involving 30,191 participants showed how

«CF has been improving from the Greatest Generation to Late Children of Depression and War Babies, but then significantly declines since the Early-Baby Boomers and continues into Mid-Baby Boomers.».

This cognitive decline affects all of the various strata of the population regardless of ethnicity, gender, or social status in general.

«This pattern is observed universally across genders, race/ethnicities, education groups, occupations, income and wealth quartiles. »

Cognitive decline, although affecting all different strata of the population, appears more frequent in those who have at the same time low economic levels and high levels of loneliness as well as those who are depressed or obese.

Considering that the family context of the origin of the Baby boomers seems to be, especially when compared to that of previous generations, positive both from an economic point of view and from the point of view of access to education, the question that arises is why we witness this widespread cognitive decay that does not appear to be related to disadvantaged conditions experienced in childhood.

The reason must therefore be found in other contexts.

In particular, it tends to be believed that the characteristics of this generation, devoted to work and competitive, are at the root of the deteriorating situation. Baby boomers, in fact, encounter high levels of loneliness, a significant lack of physical activity and a marked tendency towards obesity.

So on the one hand we have the lack of a socio-family network of reference and support and on the other the lack of those attentions towards one’s body, such as exercise and healthy eating, which also provide the basis for cognitive health. Moreover, even when the person has created landmarks considered stable, such as work or marriage and family, these have changed and the contexts of reference have become uncertain, determining “the end of the characterization of the human being as a social being, defined by one’s place in society, which determines its conduct and actions[3]

The new type of society, which Bauman defines as the “society of modern fluidity”,[4] which makes the previous reference points changeable, is ill-suited to subjects that, like baby boomers, are not willing to change and who end up suffering a psychological and existential discomfort that is difficult to solve, especially if there is a lack of introspection and flexibility and, therefore, forms of consolation such as alcohol, tobacco and food come into play. Failing to keep up with a rapidly changing society who asks to reinvent oneself, having lost what seemed like acquired and immutable pillars on which to base one’s life and one’s own security, even psychological, one ends up looking for refuge in an immediate solution that gives, if not quite relief, at least distraction.

These immediate solutions, which as we have seen are often made up of junk food and/or alcohol, then lead to physical damage that negatively impacts cognitive health. So on the one hand we have a purely psychological problem while on the other a physical problem, and both end up acting negatively in a synergistic way with each other.

This increase in cognitive decay in baby boomers has repercussions not only those affected and their immediate family members, but also on society as it seems reasonable to expect an increase in senile dementia in the population.

As Knickman says «To meet the long-term care needs of Baby Boomers, social and public policy changes must begin soon. Meeting the financial and social service burdens of growing numbers of elders will not be a daunting task if necessary, changes are made now rather than when Baby Boomers actually need long-term care. »[5]

But in the face of this, both the government and the FDA have not been adequately active in dealing with this issue that is looming. Specifically, many individuals, and even their families, do not have sufficient savings to cover the costs of treatment in the event of the onset of senile dementia or Alzheimer’s and it also seems that the FDA does not give drugs, which appear promising in the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, the same status, including rapid review, which is instead granted in similar situations concerning other serious diseases. This has led to the emergence of pressure groups formed by individuals, associations and professionals who appear concerned about the future social impact caused by the appearance of certain pathologies in baby boomers considering that already more than 16 million people in the United States are suffering from cognitive disorders and that “The growth imminent in the number of people living with cognitive impairment will place significantly greater demands on our systems of care.”[6]

Considering this, the CDC has promoted The Healthy Brain Initiative which “improves understanding of brain health as a central part of public health practice.” [7] in addition to collecting and reporting data, raise awareness in the population and the like.

But apart from these actions that take place at the federal, national, and social levels, what can we do as individuals if we belong to the Baby Boomers category and therefore are part of a group at risk?

As we have seen the physical situation has a significant impact on the psychic situation for which proper nutrition and adequate physical activity are essential.

In addition, with equal importance, the need to cultivate one’s social relationships while maintaining over time an adequate and meaningful social network that must also be a quality social network, that is, must be stimulating and non-stressful. To this are added the so-called cognitive trainings that allow you to keep the brain trained and also to conquer, over time, new skills or reinforcing the existing ones.

Last but not least, the mindset that we have towards aging, that is, the more we accept aging and the greater positive connotations you give to this part of life, the less are the chances of facing cognitive decline.

So while it is true that in baby boomers there is a greater tendency towards cognitive decline than other generations, on the other hand, even as individuals we can reverse this trend. The keywords are: proper nutrition, adequate exercise, cognitive training, mindset, positive relationships, fulfilling and non-stressful relationships, and acceptance of aging as something positive.

 

Dr. Patrizia Pietropaolo

 

[1] Staying Ahead of the Curve 2013: AARP Multicultural Work and Career Study Perception of Age Discrimination in the Workplace – Ages 45-75

[2] Hui Zheng A New Look at Cohort Trend and Underlying Mechanisms in Cognitive Functioning The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, gbaa107, 29 July 2020

[3] Alan Touraine quoted in “Liquid Modernity” by Bauman Z. Laterza

[4] Bauman Z. “Liquid Modernity” Laterza

[5] Knickman J, Snell E, “The 2030 Problem: Caring for Aging Baby Boomers” Health Serv Res. 2002 Aug; 37(4): 849–884.

[6] Cognitive impairment: a call for action now! February 2011

[7] Division of Population Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion July 30, 2020

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