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Today’s older people really are ‘younger’ than in previous generations

“Our understanding of older age is old-fashioned.”

Today’s older people really are ‘younger’ than in previous generations
[Photo: rawpixel]

You know how today’s old people don’t seem as old as the ones you met 20-30 years ago? And you wonder whether it’s because you’re aging too? It’s not: A new study in Finland found that today’s older people have notably higher physical and cognitive capacities.

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Hundreds of Finlanders aged 75-80 were given a battery of physical and cognitive tests 30 years ago. The same tests were recently repeated, in 2017-2018, with Finlanders aged 75-80. The modern group showed substantial differences:

  • walking speeds .2-.4 meters per second faster
  • grip strengths 5%-25% stronger
  • knee extension strengths 20%-47% higher
  • better verbal fluency, reasoning, and working memory

This means that the modern group moves and thinks “younger.” “Performance measurements reflect one’s functional age,” says lead author Taina Rantanen, professor of gerontology and public health at the University of Jyväskylä.

The researchers hypothesize that the better performances are likely fueled by either slowed aging or higher peak abilities in middle age, which leads to higher functioning in later years. Another recently published study supported the latter idea, finding that more education leads to higher cognitive abilities, which makes declines less obvious.

The Finland researchers also found a correlation between longer educations and higher cognitive functioning. “This cohort has grown up and lived in a different world,” says coauthor Matti Munkka, a postdoctoral researcher, who points to improvements in nutrition, hygiene, healthcare, education, and working conditions.

Rantanen believes we need to overhaul how we think about aging. “The results suggest that our understanding of older age is old-fashioned. More years are added to midlife, and not so much to the utmost end of life.”

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