Are today’s septuagenarians sharper than their predecessors?

Many people believe that we are healthier in our later years now than in the past. And while much doubt remains, research conducted by a Swedish team suggests that today’s seniors are sharper intellectually than their predecessors.

Many people believe that we are healthier in our later years now than in the past. And while much doubt remains, research conducted by a Swedish team suggests that today’s seniors are sharper intellectually than their predecessors.

In order to reach this conclusion, the researchers analyzed psychometric test results (assessing memory, alertness, verbal fluency and temporal-spatial logic) from Swedish residents born in 1901 and having therefore reached the age of 70 in the 1970s. They compared their performance to those of 70-year-old volunteers who were born in the 1930s and underwent similar tests in the 2000s. The results show a clear improvement in the mental skills of those who became septuagenarians in the 2000s compared to those of the 1970s. This study also reinforced the hypothesis that seniors with a short-term memory disorder are more likely to suffer from dementia.

What is the explanation for these results? The researchers have several hypotheses, saying the results could stem in part from improved pre- and post-natal care, a better diet, higher education, and better treatments for chronic diseases such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease in general. In addition, today’s seniors are exposed to technologies that can encourage complex thinking, such as television and the Internet.

A word of caution, however: these results must be interpreted carefully, because as with any other research, this study has its weaknesses. For example, the results may have been influenced by the fact that the patient cohorts could not be compared directly, or by participation refusal rates, level of education, and recognition of dementia in the patients’ medical file.

The next cohort of Swedish 70-year-olds will let us know whether human mental skills continue to progress. The mystery persists!

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