Cohort Differences in Cognitive Aging and Terminal Decline in the Seattle Longitudinal Study
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AbstractLife span researchers have long been interested in how and why fundamental aspects of human ontogeny differ between cohorts of people who have lived through different historical epochs. When examined at the same age, later born cohorts are often cognitively and physically fitter than earlier born cohorts. Less is known, however, about cohort differences in the rate of cognitive aging and if, at the very end of life, pervasive mortality-related processes overshadow and minimize cohort differences. We used data on 5 primary mental abilities from the Seattle Longitudinal Study (Schaie, 2005) to compare both age-related and mortality-related changes between earlier born cohorts (1886–1913) and later born cohorts (1914–1948). Our models covary for several individual and cohort differences in central indicators of life expectancy, education, health, and gender. Age-related growth models corroborate and extend earlier findings by documenting level differences at age 70 of up to 0.50 SD and less steep rates of cognitive aging on all abilities between 50 and 80 years of age favoring the later born cohort. In contrast, mortality-related models provide limited support for positive cohort differences. The later born cohort showed steeper mortality-related declines. We discuss possible reasons why often reported positive secular trends in age-related processes may not generalize to the vulnerable segment of the population that is close to death and suggest routes for further inquiry.