Why So Many Boomers Face Cognitive Decline
Cognitive function is lower in baby boomers. Can we fix it?
Posted Aug 05, 2020
For many young people, baby boomers are a bane. “Okay, boomer” is their exasperated dig. Under the boomers' watch, the climate is collapsing, a pandemic is out of control, and robots look increasingly hostile. Compared to their parents—the “greatest generation” who heroically fought two world wars—boomers look fat and pampered, self-indulgent and oblivious.
That’s a harsh assessment, but it pains me to say that new research is beginning to support at least a charge of declining intelligence. Hui Zheng of The Ohio State University examined over 30,000 participants in a Health and Retirement Study and compared their cognitive function to previous generations. He found the boomers lacking.
Cognition scores, in general, have increased since record-keeping started in 1890, but hit a wall around 1950, as the boomers rose to prominence. The drop in mental capacity is across the board: Women and men of all ethnicities are affected. A major clue to the syndrome: The boomers most affected have higher levels of depression, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and inactivity. Boomers are more likely to have psychiatric issues and more chronic diseases in general.
Of these factors, inactivity and psychiatric issues account for some 20 percent of the dumbing-down effect. This ominous trend does not bode well for the generation as its members reach the age at which dementia becomes more prevalent. Although dementia has been declining over time, likely due to better treatment for heart disease and diabetes, Zheng points out that this encouraging reduction started to stall in 2000. Could we be looking at a demographic mental health bomb in the coming years? That thought is sobering enough to examine possible fixes.
The association of psychiatric problems and chronic inflammation is familiar to scientists studying the gut-brain axis. It is interesting to note that the term “fast food” found its way into the dictionary in 1951, just when cognition measures started to drop. That is also when antibiotics became a major force in medicine. The period between 1950 and 1970 was the golden era of antibiotic discovery, and the boomers were the primary beneficiaries. Correlation is not causation, but these connections are worthy of some consideration. Could the cognition problem be related to the damage done to gut microbes by antibiotics and processed food? If so, that means the solution could be within the grasp of any boomer willing to try some simple remedies.
Antibiotics are miracle drugs, helping us squash the countless horrible infections that will always plague humanity. It’s hard to believe, but before we understood how antibiotics worked, the simple prick of a thorn could lead to a deadly infection. Antibiotics have saved millions of lives, and are rightly considered one of the most useful medical advances of all time.
However, most of the current crop of antibiotics are broad-spectrum, killing both bad and good bacteria. Since they are mostly oral medications, they can cause considerable collateral damage to the microbes in the gut—the so-called microbiota. In the 1950s, no one appreciated the beneficial role of gut microbes. Now that we do, it is time for a new approach to antibiotics, hopefully with better targeting.
Due to our ignorance of beneficial bacteria, it was widely thought that antibiotics had no downside. That has led to massive over-prescription and the development of antibiotic resistance. It is not unusual for boomers to have undergone a dozen courses of antibiotics before their teen years.
Although some studies have shown that the gut can largely recover from these treatments, other research has tracked a gradual disappearance of certain beneficial microbes. The upshot is that we need to be more circumspect when prescribing antibiotics.
The second thing to look at is fast food and processed food in general. Again, as with antibiotics, this consumer breakthrough was initially hailed as a huge win for health. Finally, everyone could have access to cheap, nutritious food—or so it was presented.
But the cheap part involved a hidden trade-off. The masters of fast gastronomy figured out a way to eliminate fiber from corn and wheat to create refined “foodstuffs” to serve as source material for products like white bread, corn chips, and whatever Cheetos are. But eliminating fiber has serious side effects.
Not realizing the importance of the gut microbiota, it wasn't surprising that manufacturers didn’t understand the role of fiber in keeping that microbiota happy. Today we know that fiber is practically as miraculous as antibiotics when it comes to preserving health. Microbes consume fiber and in return produce substances like fatty acids that heal and nourish the lining of the gut. Homegrown microbes are the first line of defense against quickly mutating pathogens.
If you starve the microbiota of fiber, the gut can become leaky enough to let microbes into the bloodstream. No matter how useful bacteria are in the gut, they are not welcome in the blood. Nevertheless, the heart dutifully pumps these microbes to every single organ in the body. Although the immune system can mop up most of these invasions, over time, a leaky gut can lead to systemic inflammation—the likely root of most chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and depression. If that sounds familiar, it’s because these are the same diseases afflicting the boomers.
What to Do
So what can boomers do to improve their lot? Use fewer antibiotics, eat less fast food, and start to exercise. Eat foods with a lot of fiber, like veggies and fruit. Fibrous veggies include onions, asparagus, artichokes, and broccoli. For fruit, berries have the most fiber.
And exercise, for reasons not entirely clear, helps your gut microbiota. Exercise also builds muscle, which is useful should you get sick. Muscle turns out to be a useful reservoir of amino acids that can quickly be recruited to help the immune system fight off pathogens. It may even help fight COVID-19.
Perhaps most importantly, certain gut microbes can improve your mood. This startling discovery implies that we can directly impact the brain with the proper microbes. John Cryan, Catherine Stanton, and Ted Dinan at University College Cork have dubbed these microbes “psychobiotics."
Recent research has also hinted that both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s start in the gut. These studies all point to an imbalance of gut microbes as a potential cause of dementia, depression, and anxiety. Fiber helps here as well. And since psychobiotics are found in fermented foods, a good diet upgrade should include yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, and kombucha.
This may seem like an uphill slog, but it’s better than a slow descent into dementia. Do it right and it will go a long way toward making you okay, boomer.
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Zheng, Hui. “A New Look at Cohort Trend and Underlying Mechanisms in Cognitive Functioning.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. Accessed August 4, 2020.
Dinan, Timothy G., Catherine Stanton, and John F. Cryan. “Psychobiotics: A Novel Class of Psychotropic.” Biological Psychiatry 74, no. 10 (November 15, 2013): 720–26.