A longer "youth" in old age as living standards change

Older people today have better functional abilities compared with those 30 years ago. Physical and cognitive performance of the 75-80-year-old group was juxtaposed with that of the 1990s.

Significant differences within 30 years

The results of a Finnish study1 show that older people today generally have better functional abilities than people of the same age three decades ago. The results of the study clearly reflect the improvement in general living conditions. For the current study, the physical and cognitive performance of people between 75 and 80 years of age today was juxtaposed with that of people of the same age in the 1990s.

The "older" study cohort consists of 500 test persons born between 1910 and 1914 whose health data were collected between 1989 and 1990 (participation rate 77%). In the "younger" test group, on the other hand, the focus was on 726 people born in 1938, 1939, 1942, or 1943, in which case health data were collected between 2017 and 2018 (participation rate 40%).

The functional abilities of the two test groups were compared on the basis of different everyday activities. Prof. Taina Rantanen, the lead author of the study, told the EurekAlert! online portal: "Performance-based measurements show how older people cope in their daily lives and at the same time reflect functional age".2 On the background to the research, she adds: "This research is unique because there are few studies in the world that have compared performance-based maximum measures between people of the same age at different periods of time".

Better nutrition, hygiene, schooling, and working conditions

For the study, the two test groups were compared in terms of criteria that included maximum walking speed, muscle strength, reaction and thinking ability, speech ability, logical thinking, lung vital capacity, and FEV1. Apart from the pulmonary function tests, the researchers found significantly improved values in all aspects: The walking speed was on average 0.2-0.4 m/s higher in the "younger" cohort than in the "older" test group. Improvements in grip strength were 5-25% and in knee extension strength 20-47%. With regard to lung vital capacity, the research team could see an improvement of 14-21%. Only with regard to FEV1, the improvements were only 0-14%.1 

Ph.D. student Kaisa Koivunen explains: "More physical activity and the increased average height explain the increased walking speed and improved muscle strength in the later-born cohort. The most important underlying factor for the cohort differences in cognitive performance was longer schooling "2.

Postdoctoral researcher Matti Munukka emphasizes the crucial role of changing environmental influences and life circumstances: "The cohort of 75- and 80-year-olds born later grew up under completely different circumstances and lived in a different world than their peers born three decades earlier. There have been many changes: better nutrition and hygiene, improvements in health care, and the school system, better access to education, and better working life are all decisive factors".

Prof. Rantanen explained that "the results indicate that our understanding of old age is ‘old-fashioned’. From an aging researcher's point of view, more years are added to the middle age than to the end of life. The higher life expectancy gives us more years without any physical or mental limitations, but as we get older, the last years of life move further behind, which explains the increased need for care. The aging population is thus undergoing two changes at the same time: the prolongation of healthy life years into old age and an increasing number of very old people in need of external care.

1.  Kaisa Koivunen, MSc, Elina Sillanpää, PhD, Matti Munukka, PhD, Erja Portegijs, PhD, Taina Rantanen, PhD, Cohort differences in maximal physical performance: a comparison of 75- and 80-year-old men and women born 28 years apart, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, , glaa224, https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glaa224
2. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-09/uoj--oph092120.php