Seniors are younger today, more mentally and physically fit than 30 years ago

JYVÄSKYLÄ, Finland — A lot of things have changed in the world since 1990. A new study in Finland finds one of those things is the health of seniors. Not only are people living longer in 2020, but researchers say seniors are in much better shape than their peers 30 years ago.

The University of Jyväskylä research finds older adults who are 75 and 80 years old today are enjoying more years in middle age, leading to being more physically fit later in life. Today’s seniors are also enjoying even better mental health than 75 and 80 year-olds in 1990.

“Performance-based measurements describe how older people manage in their daily life, and at the same time, the measurements reflect one’s functional age,” explains Professor Taina Rantanen in a university release.

The study compares 500 people born between 1910 and 1914 to a group of 726 seniors who were the same age in 2017 or 2018. In comparison to 30 years ago, health records of seniors today show major increases in muscle strength, walking speed, reaction speed, verbal fluency, reasoning, and working memory. One of the only readings which does not show an improvement is lung function.

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

Life in the 21st century is better for your health

The report finds present-day seniors have lived much of their lives in a much different world than 75 to 80-year-olds decades ago.

“There have been many favorable changes. These include better nutrition and hygiene, improvements in health care and the school system, better accessibility to education and improved working life,” researcher Matti Munukka adds.

Study authors say the present day life cycle is significantly different. People spend more years enjoying high levels of health and ability, stretching into later life. The rate at which people change as they get older is also slowing, resulting in greater physical performance from birth until death.

“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 explains.

Longer lives also means more healthcare

One of the possible drawbacks of living longer, researchers find, is many seniors are in need of continuous medical care once they reach their final years. Rantanen says the “last years” are now coming much later than they did in 1990, but the number of these years isn’t really changing.

“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.”

The study appears in The Journals of Gerontology.

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