Older, fitter, sharper

Today’s older people are fitter and healthier than their counterparts 30 years ago, according to a study by Finnish researchers.

The research, conducted by the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, compared the physical and cognitive performance of people between the ages of 75 and 80 with that of same-aged people in the 1990s.

It found this age group now walks up to 33 per cent faster than in 1990. And “muscle strength, walking speed, reaction speed, verbal fluency, reasoning and working memory are nowadays significantly better than they were in people at the same age born earlier”.

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

Increased longevity is being matched by improved quality of life, says postdoctoral researcher Matti Munukka.

“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. There have been many favourable changes. These include better nutrition and hygiene, improvements in healthcare and the school system, better accessibility to education and improved working life.”

The study’s principal investigator, Professor Taina Rantanen, says the results suggest that our understanding of older age is old-fashioned.

“From an ageing 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.”

The study started in 1989, analysing 500 people born between 1910 and 1914.

This earliest cohort grew up when Finland was primarily a farming economy, dependent on manual labour. They endured the turmoil of the Russian Civil War of 1918, were likely to have fought in World War II and many of them were forced to leave school early to work at physically taxing jobs.

Later cohorts in the study spent more time at school and enjoyed upgrades in social services.

In 2018, ABC News asked: “Were our grandparents really healthier than us?”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) told them Australian life expectancy had increased due to “an ageing population and improvements in social, economic and living standards”.

It found that Australian life expectancy had improved dramatically since 1910 and improvements in life expectancy for people over 65 had accelerated over the past 20 years.

“Compared to a century ago, older people today are much more likely to die from a chronic disease than an infectious disease.”

On diet, it called a draw: we eat too much processed and energy-rich food these days but eat less from backyard vegetable gardens.

“The amount of fat and meat they were eating had a huge effect on people’s life spans, especially men,” said University of Sydney medical historian Peter Hobbins. “These days we have a lot more information about eating well, even if we don’t eat well.”

On physical activity, our forebears won.

“While cars, computers and household appliances have made our lives more efficient, they’ve also removed a lot of the health-protective movements our grandparents’ generation would have done without thinking.”

However, modern Australians have better access to medicine and medical care. There is national responsibility for healthcare, improved mental healthcare, an awareness of the hazards of cigarette smoking and improvements in sanitation and sewerage systems, food inspections and building safety standards.

Do you think we are now healthier and stay that way for longer? Can you explain your view?

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Written by Will Brodie


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