Population Aging at Cross-Roads: Diverging Secular Trends in Average Cognitive Functioning and Physical Health in the Older Population of Germany.
AbstractThis paper uses individual-level data from the German Socio-Economic Panel to model trends in population health in terms of cognition, physical fitness, and mental health between 2006 and 2012. The focus is on the population aged 50-90. We use a repeated population-based cross-sectional design. As outcome measures, we use SF-12 measures of physical and mental health and the Symbol-Digit Test (SDT) that captures cognitive processing speed. In line with previous research we find a highly significant Flynn effect on cognition; i.e., SDT scores are higher among those who were tested more recently (at the same age). This result holds for men and women, all age groups, and across all levels of education. While we observe a secular improvement in terms of cognitive functioning, at the same time, average physical and mental health has declined. The decline in average physical health is shown to be stronger for men than for women and found to be strongest for low-educated, young-old men aged 50-64: the decline over the 6-year interval in average physical health is estimated to amount to about 0.37 SD, whereas average fluid cognition improved by about 0.29 SD. This pattern of results at the population-level (trends in average population health) stands in interesting contrast to the positive association of physical health and cognitive functioning at the individual-level. The findings underscore the multi-dimensionality of health and the aging process.