Over-70s are fitter and healthier than previous generations: study

Today’s over-70s are healthier in mind and body than previous generations.

Smiling senior couple jogging in the park

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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    To make a comment, please register or login
    28th Sep 2020
    If you don`t look after it nobody else will!
    Karl Marx
    28th Sep 2020
    Exercise most mornings with a good walk & using exercise equipment around my local lake. I am very thankful for my health & fitness & don't take supplements or any medications. Very rarely take a painkiller. Many of my friends who are much younger are on daily medication of some variety & notice more females than males take medications.Sometimes it's genetics that dictate your health when older but regular exercise & a positive approach to life as well as keeping all negative people at a distance goes a long way in staying healthy.
    30th Sep 2020
    Good stuff try adding gentle YOGA to your routine to keep flexible too
    i jog round our communal farm here in Siberia,
    Ecstatic Cyclist
    28th Sep 2020
    Jog a bit
    It keeps you fit
    28th Sep 2020
    My parents both lived till they were 98. They didn't need gyms when they were young because daily life was one big physical exercise program . Cycle to work, work a 48 hour week with one week annual leave. Chop firewood to cook a meal. No fast food or take away. No automatic washing machine or dishwasher, the list goes on. No ducted aircon and heating, they huddled around a single fireplace in the winter and opened the windows in summer. If they were alive today they would laugh (or despair) at how soft Aussies have become. This pandemic has shown what spoilt little princesses abound in our society today. Cant wear a mask, boo hoo. Cant go to a nightclub till 5 am, woe is me. Dan Andrews is worse than Hitler, spare me the bleeding heart bullshit. The contributors to this site might have retained some of their parents toughness and tenacity but I'm afraid generations following us are too concerned with mobile phone battery life and the fact that they cant have a smashed avocado breakfast at their local cafe to cause me grief about the state of their precious, pampered, self entitled lifestyle.
    29th Sep 2020
    Totally agree. With parents currently 96 and 98 and both looking like being here for some time to come, I have good role models. With today’s older people being fitter and healthier than their counterparts 30 years ago, it explains why governments want to tilt the playing field.
    Many of us walk daily (I do 5 to 10K per day) and eat healthy (partly by choice and partly due to cost). Currently we Australians have better access to medicine and medical care and supposedly our government has a national responsibility for healthcare and improved mental healthcare, along with improvements in sanitation, sewerage systems, food inspections and building safety standards.
    This will mean we might live longer, which means we are a memory politicians would rather not have, a conscience they certainly don't want and a source of funds they can access or save. While I don't want to live as tough as my parents and grandparents did, I do believe there is value in losing some of the ' essentials' we've built into our community's expectations. A new car, an apartment, new furniture, annual holidays, and the freedom to be precious may mean we have gone too far. Have we created a dependent nation? History shows us numerous leaders have done this, but is this the culture we want in Australia?
    I enjoy working with and communicating with younger Australians, but the thought of fixing something, waiting or even questioning seems to have been educated out of them. I have fun helping some of them learn independence.

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