The phrase ‘age is just a number’ is so overused and common that it has long since become a cliche. But in this specific case, we find that it can be quite useful to describe just how arbitrary our concept of old age and aging is when compared to the latest research findings in senior health, as it turns out that people in their 70s and 80s today feel much younger and more capable and active than their peers from the 1990s.
A recent study conducted at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, compared how well seniors in 2018 are able to maintain an active lifestyle, a capable body, and a quick mind - all factors that heavily influence our daily lives and life satisfaction - to the same criteria from a nearly identical group of seniors from 1990.
What they found was a striking difference in nearly all the criteria between the two groups, with the 2018 senior cohort having a significantly higher activity and functionality level than the cohort from just less than 30 years ago. What were the exact findings and how does that challenge our concept of old age? Continue reading to find out.
First, a little bit more about the study:
Data were first collected in 1989-1990 from 500 men and women born between 1910 and 1914. The second round of data was taken in 2017-2018 from 726 participants born in 1938-1939 and 1942-1943. Thus, the age range of the participants in both groups was from 75 to 80 years old.
Unlike ordinary theory-heavy experiments, the Finnish study had a more practical goal - to measure how an average senior feels every day and what they can or can no longer accomplish on a daily basis. "Performance-based measurements describe how older people manage in their daily life, and at the same time, the measurements reflect one’s functional age,” stated Prof. Taina Rantanen, the lead author of the study.
To do so, the researchers measured strength, reaction speed, lung function, walking speed, verbal fluency, reasoning, and working memory. The lung function test was the only measure where no changes were observed between the two groups - in all remaining tests, the 2018 group performed much better than the 1990 group. Not only were modern-day seniors more physically active, and thus had better walking speed and muscle strength, they also engaged in learning and education more and so their mental performance better as well.
The researchers point out that many favorable factors, such as better nutrition and hygiene, health care innovations, better education and working life all seem to contribute to the overall better health and wellbeing of modern-day seniors. The study's authors conclude that seniors today remain functional through later years in life than their peers from 30 years ago.
As the researchers were quoted as concluding, “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 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.”
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