Older People Really are Getting Younger, Study Says

'Our understanding of older age is old-fashioned,' researchers say.

Group of beautiful older women smiling

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Fifty really is the new 30. Or maybe 60 is the new 30. Or even 70.

The physical and cognitive ability of older people has improved significantly compared to people of the same age three decades ago, according to a new study from Finnish researchers.

The study compared the physical and cognitive performance of people today between the ages of 75 and 80 with the abilities of people of the same ages in the 1990s. Five hundred participants in one group were born between 1910 and 1914. The more recent group of 726 participants was born in 1938 or 1939 and 1942 or 1943.

The study was conducted at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences and Gerontology Research Center at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. The results were published in The Journals of Gerontology.

When comparing the two groups, researchers found that today, in people between the ages of 75 and 80, muscle strength, walking speed, reaction speed, verbal fluency, reasoning, and working memory, are all significantly better than they were in people born three decades earlier when they were the same age.

There are many possible explanations for the results, postdoctoral researcher Matti Munukka tells Treehugger. More physical activity and a longer education are key underlying factors behind the better cognitive performance, for example. And more exercise and larger body size explain the better walking speed and muscle strength in today’s older group.

“The later cohort had more propitious life course exposures that positively affected their health and functioning,” Munukka says. 

The earlier group grew up when Finland was mostly agricultural. Children worked from an earlier age and experienced the turmoil of wars. The later group grew up during the time when there were many positive changes.

“These include higher educational attainment and improved health care, population movement from rural to urban areas and smaller families, improved nutrition and hygiene, more complex and stimulating work, cognitively stimulating leisure time activities, social engagement and changes in processing from more characteristically verbal to more iconic representations due to the rise of visually oriented modalities in film, television, computer games, and other media and, more recently, social media and mobile devices,” Munukka says.

More Years Added to Midlife

The results suggest that as people live longer, they also have better functional ability, which is how they manage in their day-to-day life. The study shows that both cognitively and physically, older people have an increasing number of years with good functional ability. That means old age really begins much later in life.

“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,” the principal investigator of the study, professor Taina Rantanen, said in a release.

“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 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.”

One takeaway is that we just need to rethink old age, the researchers say.

“The results suggest that our understanding of older age is old-fashioned,” doctoral student Kaisa Koivunen tells Treehugger. “The results may help to identify potentially unrecognized resources of older adults and encourage their continued engagement in valued activities in later life.”