A new study from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria conducted by World Population Program researchers has found that older adults are getting smarter.  But, it also reported that their mental health and physical fitness levels are declining.

The study followed non-institutionalized participants in Germany ages 50 and over and tracked survey results in 2006 and again in 2012, the survey measured cognitive processing speed, physical fitness and mental health.  The study found that cognitive test scored increased with the 6 year period for both men at women, and at all age levels (from 50 to 90 years old).  But, reports also show that physical functioning and mental health declined, highest in the lower-educated men ages 50-64.

Researchers indicated that the improvements in mental processing could be related to higher levels of education and increased technology use.

As reported by the IIASA, their population experts have focused studies in recent years on new ways to measure age.   The focus is on an aging person’s characteristics, rather than simply the number of years they’ve been alive.  Because cognition declines with age, it is a key attribute that researchers need to understand to analyze how different population groups age better than others.

The IIASA’s previous studies have revealed that more and more elderly groups are found to be in better health than previous generations of the same age.  But this was the first study that showed a departure, with increasing cognitive function but declining health.  Similar studies done in England had the same results.

Author of the study, Nadia Steiber and World Population Program researcher has said the research could be explained by a change in lifestyle – with people working longer and life becoming more cognitively demanding, but with a decline in physical activity and rising levels of obesity reported.

The next step for researchers will be to confirm if the results are consistent in other countries.