Is Getting Older Becoming Better?
It would appear as if getting older is becoming better. Thanks to advancements in modern education, hygiene, nutrition, medicine and technology getting old doesn’t have to be what it once was, as the physical and cognitive health of those aged 75+ is significantly much better than those in that age range just three decades ago, according to a study from the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Jyvaskyla Finland.
“Performance-based measurements describe how older people manage in their daily life, and at the same time, the measurements reflect one’s functional age,” says the principal investigator of the study, Professor Taina Rantanen.
This study published in The Journals of Gerontology compared the cognitive and physical performance of those between the ages of 75-80 from present-day people and those from the 1990s. Findings showed that modern-day people in this age group were significantly better with verbal fluency, reasoning, working memory, muscle strength, walking speed, and reaction speed than those from the 1990s. However, in lung function testing there were no differences observed between the cohorts.
Participants were recruited from the Digital and Population Data Services Agency and they were assessed at the age of 75 or 80 years. The data collected for the 1989-1990 cohort consisted of 500 participants born between 1910-1014; the 2017-2018 cohort consisted of 726 participants born in 1938-1939 and 1942-1943.
“Higher physical activity and increased body size explained the better walking speed and muscle strength among the later-born cohort,” says doctoral student Kaisa Koivunen, “whereas the most important underlying factor behind the cohort differences in cognitive performance was longer education.”
“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,” added postdoctoral researcher Matti Munukka.
According to the researchers, their findings suggest that the increased life expectancy (lifespan) is accompanied by an increased number of years lived with good functional ability later in life (healthspan), and this observation may be explained by the slower rate of change with increasing age, a higher lifetime maximum in physical performance, or a combination of the two.
“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,” says Rantanen.
“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.”