Cognitive Function as a Refined Indicator of Aging

Cognitive function may be a better indicator of the impact of aging on an economy than age-distribution, with chronological age imposing less of a social and economic burden if the population is “functionally” younger. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Skirbekk, Loichinger, Weber, 2012), finds that one standardised indicator of cognitive ability – memory recall – is better in countries where education, nutrition, and health standards are generally higher. Aging populations are of concern to many countries as it is often assumed that ageing necessarily implies a greater cost to society in terms of aged care, age related disease, and reduced capacity to contribute to society.

However, this research suggests that the effects of chronological aging are uneven across nations and that in some countries, particularly more affluent ones that are able to invest in early and sustained education and health programs, cognitive function and thus the ability to live healthy and productive lives is maintained longer.

Demographic indicators of the economic impact of an aging population typically rely on measures based on populations’ age-distribution, expressed as the Old Age Dependency Ratio (OADR). Whilst this is helpful measurement, it does not include information on individual characteristics, other than age.

Cognitive function can provide a new and comparable measure of how a region or a nation’s population may age. Such information can inform early intervention in the education and health systems to try and improve cognitive performance, ultimately reducing the burden of aging. For example, in northern Europe or the United States where there is a relatively large population over the age of 65, we found that cognitive function is higher for this age group than for the same age group in Mexico, India and China. Overall, even though Europe and the US may be chronologically older, they are ‘functionally’ younger.

Cognitive ability levels are also good indicators of individual productivity and this has direct relevance to the economic and business activities within a country.

The difference in cognitive function may be explained by the fact that seniors in some regions of the world experience better conditions during their childhood and adult life, including nutrition, duration and quality of schooling, exposure to disease, and physical and social activity.

The study involved surveys of people aged over fifty years from a range of countries including the United States, Mexico, India, and across Europe, from both urban and rural areas. The surveys measured, among other parameters, short-term memory, or the ability to immediately recall words read-out to the participants. Immediate recall has been shown to influence decision-making ability and the risk of dementia. Because aspects of cognitive functioning at older ages can now, for the first time, be more readily compared across countries, such a measurement may also serve as a benchmark for assessing the burden of aging across countries.


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Vegard Skirbekk

About Vegard Skirbekk

Dr. Vegard Skirbekk investigates trends in the age and gender distribution of human capital, skills and work performance focusing on life cycle and cohort changes; and how to improve senior workers' skills and capacities. He also studies the impact of generational and life cycle variation on religion, societal values and belief structures, considering cohort and life cycle changes, migration, fertility differences and taking into account intrafamilial transmissions. Another key research interest is the determinants of childbearing in a low fertility Asian and European context. In 2005 he was awarded his PhD at the University of Rostock, Germany.

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