Cohorts Based on Decade of Death: No Evidence for Secular Trends Favoring Later Cohorts in Cognitive Aging and Terminal Decline in the AHEAD Study

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Abstract

Studies of birth-year cohorts examined over the same age range often report secular trends favoring later-born cohorts, who are cognitively fitter and show less steep cognitive declines than earlier-born cohorts. However, there is initial evidence that those advantages of later-born cohorts do not carry into the last years of life, suggesting that pervasive mortality-related processes minimize differences that were apparent earlier in life. Elaborating this work from an alternative perspective on cohort differences, we compared rates of cognitive aging and terminal decline in episodic memory between cohorts based on the year participants had died, earlier (between 1993 and 1999) or later in historical time (between 2000 and 2010). Specifically, we compared trajectories of cognitive decline in 2 death-year cohorts of participants in the Asset and Health Dynamics Among the Oldest Old study that were matched on age at death and education and controlled for a variety of additional covariates. Results revealed little evidence of secular trends favoring later cohorts. To the contrary, the cohort that died in the 2000s showed a less favorable trajectory of age-related memory decline than the cohort that died in the 1990s. In examinations of change in relation to time to death, the cohort dying in the 2000s experienced even steeper terminal declines than the cohort dying in the 1990s. We suggest that secular increases in “manufacturing” survival may exacerbate age- and mortality-related cognitive declines among the oldest old.

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