Comparing the burden of aging across countries hinges on the availability of valid and comparable indicators. The Old Age Dependency Ratio allows only a limited assessment of the challenges of aging, because it does not include information on any individual characteristics except age itself. Existing alternative indicators based on health or economic activity suffer from measurement and comparability problems. We propose an indicator based on age variation in cognitive functioning. We use newly released data from standardized tests of seniors’ cognitive abilities for countries from different world regions. In the wake of long-term advances in countries’ industrial composition and technological advances, the ability to handle new job procedures is now of high and growing importance, which increases the importance of cognition for work performance over time. In several countries with older populations, we find better cognitive performance on the part of populations aged 50+ than in countries with chronologically younger populations. This variation in cognitive functioning levels may be explained by the fact that seniors in some regions of the world experienced better conditions during childhood and adult life, including nutrition, duration and quality of schooling, lower exposure to disease, and physical and social activity patterns. Because of the slow process of cohort replacement, those countries whose seniors already have higher cognitive levels today are likely to continue to be at an advantage for several decades to come.
March 12, 2014