Older adults are younger than they were 30 years ago

Physical and cognitive function have improved significantly in three decades, study finds

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Men and women ages 75-80 right now have better muscle strength, walking speed, reaction speed, verbal fluency, reasoning and working memory than people of the same age 30 years ago, a new study finds.

“Performance-based measurements describe how older people manage in their daily life, and at the same time, the measurements reflect one’s functional age,” said professor Taina Rantanen, principal investigator of the study.

The study, conducted at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, compared the physical and cognitive performance of people nowadays between the ages of 75 and 80 with that of the same-age people in the 1990s.

“Higher physical activity and increased body size explained the better walking speed and muscle strength among the later-born cohort,” doctoral student Kaisa Koivunen said in a release published in Science Daily, “whereas the most important underlying factor behind the cohort differences in cognitive performance was longer education.”

Postdoctoral researcher Matti Munukka continued: “The cohort of 75- and 80-year-olds born later has grown up and lived in a different world than did their counterparts born three decades ago. There have been many favourable changes. These include better nutrition and hygiene, improvements in health care and the school system, better accessibility to education and improved working life.”

According to the release, the results show not only are they living longer, but they also are living better for a longer time.

“This research is unique because there are only a few studies in the world that have compared performance-based maximum measures between people of the same age in different historical times,” Rantanen said.

“The results suggest that our understanding of older age is old-fashioned. From an aging researcher’s point of view, more years are added to midlife, and not so much to the utmost end of life. Increased life expectancy provides us with more non-disabled years, but at the same time, the last years of life comes at higher and higher ages, increasing the need for care. Among the ageing population, two simultaneous changes are happening: continuation of healthy years to higher ages and an increased number of very old people who need external care.”