Today's Seniors Are Smarter

Tests Suggest Less Mental Decline for Current Generation of Elderly

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 5, 2007 -- Senior moments notwithstanding, elderly people are smarter today than they were less than a generation ago, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that when it comes to mental acuity, 74 is the new 59.

They compared performances on a battery of intelligence tests between a group of contemporary 74-year-olds and another group of people who took the tests 16 years earlier, when they were also 74.

The latter-day septuagenarians performed better on the tests across the board.

In fact, the average performance of a contemporary 74-year-old was closer to someone 15 years younger in the earlier testing group, researcher Elizabeth M. Zelinski, PhD, tells WebMD.

Zelinski is a professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"These findings have very interesting implications for the future, especially in terms of employment," she says. "As a group, older people are more mentally able to keep working beyond retirement age today."

Older Can Be Smarter

The tests were designed to measure reasoning, memory, and other aspects of intelligence.

The study appears in the latest issue of the journal Psychology and Aging.

Zelinski says future testing will track the performance of baby boomers as they reach their retirement age.

The oldest baby boomers will turn 65 in 2011.

"We think things will be even better for the baby boomers, who are even more educated than the pre-World War II generation," she notes.

But better education alone probably doesn't explain the intellectual difference between today's elderly and their parents and grandparents, Zelinski says.

Like the rest of the population, older people in industrial countries are now exposed to much more information than previous generations through mass media and other contributors to popular culture.

The thinking is that this deluge of information delivered through television, movies and other cultural venues is making us all somewhat smarter.

"Our culture is stimulating us whether we like it or not," she says.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 05, 2007


SOURCES: Zelinski, E.M. Psychology and Aging, 2007; vol 22: pp 546-557. Elizabeth M. Zelinski, PhD, professor of gerontology and psychology, Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

© 2007 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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