Are older people better off mentally and physically today than the previous generation?
Yes, at least in Finland, say researchers who just published a study on aging in the journal Ageing Clinical and Experimental Research.1
Let’s take a look at what we can learn…
Scientists at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland accessed the country’s health data gathered 28 years ago on the physical and mental abilities of elderly people. The subjects included 500 participants aged between 75 and 80 years old.
Next, the researchers conducted the same physical and cognitive tests on a group of 75- to 80-year-olds living in Finland today, and found some interesting results.
They discovered that the muscle strength, walking speed, reaction time, verbal fluency and memory of today’s seniors was better than those of their predecessors.
“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 principal investigator of the study, Professor TainaRantanen.
What Accounts for this Improvement?
The results suggest that today’s increased life expectancy is accompanied by an improved quality of life and a greater number of years lived with good functional ability.
“Higher physical activity and increased body size explained the better walking speed and muscle strength among the later-born cohort,” explains doctoral student KaisaKoivunen, “whereas the most important underlying factor behind the cohort differences in cognitive performance was longer education.”
Postdoctoral researcher Matti Munukka offers some further insight into the findings. He notes that environmental differences could have influenced the results.
He points out that those 75- to 80-year-olds born later grew up in a world that is quite different than the world their predecessors were born into.
The researchers point out that the earlier generation of people was born when Finland was still an undeveloped agricultural region of the Russian empire. This means children likely had poorer nutrition and were more likely to work from an early age instead of going to school.
Conversely, the recent group likely had a more comfortable upbringing with more stable nutrition and development.
“There have been many favorable changes,” says Mr. Manukka. “These include better nutrition and hygiene, improvements in health care and the school system, better accessibility to education and improved working life.”
Old Age isn’t What it Used to Be
In a nutshell, researchers deduced that today’s seniors (at least in Finland) are more active than their predecessors. They’re stronger, faster and have better cognition.
“The results suggest that our understanding of older age is old-fashioned,” Prof. Rantanen says. “From an aging researcher’s point of view, more years are added to midlife, and not so much to the utmost end of life.”
He notes increased life expectancy provides us with more non-disabled years, but at the same time, the last years of life come at higher and higher ages, increasing the need for care.
“Among the aging 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.”
My Two Cents
I think this study is fascinating, but like all research there are drawbacks.
For instance, most of us don’t live in Finland. The United States likely has its own set of healthy aging markers. Still, it’s good news. I think some of the findings would likely be duplicated in the U.S. if such a study were conducted.
The research also adds to other hopeful findings that show our cognitive health in old age is better now than in the past.2
Despite the good news, I would caution that it’s possible the generation heading for their senior years now – say, people who are now 40 to 60 – will have poorer health and a lower life expectancy than today’s seniors. Rampant obesity, substance abuse, runaway blood sugar, and lack of exercise may drive down the number of years these folks can expect to live. A countervailing trend is that new medical miracles such as stem cell therapy may keep these wrecks going after all.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to eat a healthy diet, manage my stress and get plenty of exercise. Not only will it help me feel better today, but it will likely help me remain healthier tomorrow.