Why Older Adults Are Getting Younger by the Day

A new study shows why today's seniors are more youthful than 30 years ago.

Posted Sep 29, 2020

Photo by Marisa Howenstine on Unsplash
Older adults outperform their peers from three decades ago
Source: Photo by Marisa Howenstine on Unsplash

You’ve probably heard the adage, “70 is the new 30.” With improved health of older adults, more people are living well into their 70s. And a new study comparing the physical and cognitive performance of people nowadays between the ages of 75 and 80 with the same-aged group in the 1990s reveals part of the reason why.

Researchers recruited 1,226 participants from the Digital and Population Data Services Agency at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences and Gerontology Research Center at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. The first cohort data were collected between 1989 and 1990 and consisted of 500 adults born between 1910 and 1914. The second cohort data were collected from 2017 to 2018 and comprised 726 people born in 1938 or 1939 and 1942 or 1943.

In both cohorts, the participants were assessed at home at the age 75 or 80 and examined at the research center with identical protocols. Maximal walking speed, maximal isometric grip and knee extension strength, lung function measurements, forced vital capacity (FVC), and forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) were all assessed.

The findings showed that the physical and cognitive health of contemporary older adults is significantly better than people in that age range 30 years ago. Among men and women between the ages of 75 and 80, muscle strength, walking speed, reaction speed, verbal fluency, reasoning, and working memory are now significantly better than they were in people of the same age born earlier. In lung function tests, however, differences between cohorts were not observed.

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

The contemporary cohorts have grown up and lived in a different world than their counterparts from three decades ago. And positive changes such as healthier nutrition and hygiene, improvements in health care and the school system, better accessibility to education, and improved working life have contributed to the superior functionality, according to the researchers.

The results suggest that increased life expectancy is accompanied by an increased number of years lived with good functional ability among 70- and 80-year-olds. The observation can be explained by slower rate-of-change with increasing age, a higher lifetime maximum in physical performance, or a combination of the two.

According to the researchers, this investigation is one of only a few studies in the world to compare performance-based maximum measures between people of the same age in different historical times. They conclude: “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 come 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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Koivunen, K., et al. (2020). 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.