Health & Wellbeing

Older people today are smarter, stronger and faster than 30 years ago

Older people today are smarter, stronger and faster than 30 years ago
New research offers a valuable insight into the progress made extending healthspan over the past century
New research offers a valuable insight into the progress made extending healthspan over the past century
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New research offers a valuable insight into the progress made extending healthspan over the past century
New research offers a valuable insight into the progress made extending healthspan over the past century

A compelling new study from researchers in Finland has compared the physical and cognitive performance of a group of older people in 2017 with a similarly aged group three decades earlier. Improvements were seen in almost every test, suggesting progress has been made extending healthspan, the number of healthy years a person lives.

Over the last century humans have, on average, been living longer and longer. Life expectancy has been consistently increasing, however, over the past few decades some researchers have begun to suggest medical research should focus more on quality of life, instead of quantity.

In 2001 the World Health Organization incorporated a new metric into its global analyses. HALE, healthy life expectancy, is a novel calculation of how many years a person can expect to live in optimal health. This renewed focus on healthspan, not just lifespan, suggests as human beings consistently begin to live well past the age of 70, attention must be paid to the quality of these senior years.

In a relatively unique pair of new studies, researchers from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland have compared physical and cognitive performance in two cohorts of similarly aged subjects born around 30 years apart.

The first cohort of around 500 subjects, aged between 75 and 80 (born between 1910 and 1914), participated in a variety of physical and cognitive tests in 1989. The second cohort, again aged between 75 and 80 (born between 1938 and 1943), completed the same barrage of tests in 2017.

Taina Rantanen, principle investigator on the project, says this research allowed for a novel way to measure the progress made in extending healthspan from one generation to the next.

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

Improvements were noted across almost all tested metrics in the later-born cohort. Looking at physical performance, walking speed was faster, grip strength improved between five and 25 percent, knee extension strength improved between 20 and 47 percent, and lung function measurements were better. Similar improvements were also seen in the later-born cohort across most cognitive performance tests.

Matti Manukka, a postdoctoral researcher working on the project, suggests a broad variety of factors can explain why the later-born cohort displayed such consistent healthspan improvements.

“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,” says Manukka. “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.”

The researchers do note the findings may, to a degree, be unique to Finland, a country that was still largely agrarian and undeveloped when the earlier cohort were born around 1910. A number of social reforms, including longer obligatory education and better nutritional recommendations, occurring in the 1940s and 50s are cited as key to many of the physical and cognitive improvements seen in the later-born cohort.

Ultimately, Rantanen suggests, as life expectancy continues to grow, scientists must pay close attention to the balance between more healthy years lived, and the care systems necessary to manage very old populations at the end of their lives. Expanding the period of non-disabled mid-life years and limiting one’s disabled end-of-life years should be a priority for aging researchers, says Rantanen.

“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,” says Rantanen. “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.”

The cognitive performance comparative study was published in the journal Aging Clinical and Experimental Research, while the physical performance comparative study was published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series A.

Source: University of Jyväskylä

Yeah I knew there was a good reason why everything is still working while I am in my early 70's.
Judging by the current average population, I think that trend is being reversed.
Bill S.
I'm in my 70's and other than the usual aches and pains of knees and such, I feel great and can accomplish the same things I always have, other than surfing, skiing, and hang gliding. I think having a good attitude toward life and people is a good idea. That, and a wife who is 15 years younger and cracks the whip doesn't seem to be doing me any harm either. She is very nutrition oriented and makes me eat properly and gets me to the gym 3 days a week. Being happy and loving others will go a long way to a long life.
Marco McClean
For near-80-year-olds now, the peak of tetraethyl lead in the environment was when they were in their thirties. For 80-year-olds thirty years ago, it was when they were in their 50s. I wonder if that has an effect on elderly mental and physical health. Also, 80-year-olds now didn't have to endure the Great Depression, and they came of age during the age of vaccines. Modern dental care available to boomers and slightly-pre-boomers might have something to do with these results, and a great deal less backbreaking physical work over the course of a lifetime, and not having to bear and raise litters of children.
This study comes as no surprise. Years ago, I found a tattered copy of the local newspaper dated 1883. In the obituaries, there were few people who lived past 40 years of age. Of course, the industrial revolution of the time created unbelievably toxic living situations for the common people that lasted well into the second world war. Today we have come to expect higher living standards and we tend to worry over many other matters, some trivial.
I'm not so sure about this study. What was the age distribution in this group. Health rapidly declines from age 75 to 80. Just a few more toward the age of 75 in one group or the other could really skew the results. At 72 half of my class mates have already passed and half of the remainder are seriously ill. A friend in a nearby town was one year older but died last year along with over 70% of her class mates. From what I have observed, longevity is more about genes than anything. My friends that died young had parents that died young. There was a study out a few years ago that claimed that if you lived to age 60 back in 1940, you could only expect to live four years longer after reaching age 60 today. All our medical advancement and drugs are only extending later life by an average of four years (excluding losses to childhood diseases). The last data I read said the average lifespan had dropped by two years recently for men from 78 years to 76 years. Some will be genetically lucky and live past 90 or even 100 but most of us won't no matter what your investment advisor tells you. More people are living longer today simply because there are more people.
Bills comment is right on the money. Where I live having a partner outside the cycle of 12 years is a little frowned on. My partner is 11 years my junior so I have not ticked off the gods.