A new study that was carried out by the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland concluded that older people are acting younger than ever because their functional ability has improved compared to that of people at the same age three decades ago.

The study looked at the mental and physical performances of men and women between the ages of 75 and 80 and compared them to that of people who were the same age in 1990. Researchers concluded that muscle strength, walking speed, reaction speed, verbal fluency, reasoning and working memory are much better in people who are 75-80 now compared to people who were that age 30 years ago.

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

“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,” stated researcher Matti Munukka. “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.”

Based on the results, the researchers concluded that an increased life expectancy also means an increased number of years in which a person lives with high functioning mental and physical abilities. They found that this could be explained by some combination of a slower rate-of-change with increasing age and a higher lifetime maximum in physical performance.

“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,” said Professor Taina Rantanen, the principal investigator of the study.

“The results suggest that our understanding of older age is old-fashioned,” she added. “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. Among the ageing 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.”

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