Sep 23, 2020 - Science

The new old age is younger

Old man jumping

Guenther Herzberg competing at the Seniors All-Around German Championship, and jumping farther than you whipper-snappers ever will. Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images for Spiegel Magazine

A new study finds that the physical and cognitive ability of older people has improved meaningfully over the past 30 years.

Why it matters: With the population of the elderly set to boom over the next several decades, their health and well-being are more important than ever. New research shows that rapid decline isn't a given.

What's happening: The study, performed by researchers at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, compared the physical and mental performances of a group of subjects between 75 and 80 years old to a similarly aged group back in the 1990s.

  • The researchers found that muscle strength, walking speed, reactions, verbal fluency and memory were all better now among the elderly subjects they studied.
  • The essential conclusion was that older people today look, act and think younger than their counterparts from nearly 30 years ago.

How it works: The major difference between the two cohorts seemed to be the environments in which they grew up and grew older.

  • More activity over a lifetime meant that today's seniors were stronger and faster, while generally higher levels of education translated into superior cognitive performance.
  • The results suggest increasing life expectancy also means more years of higher-quality life — essentially an extended middle age.

Yes, but: Those extra high-quality years in the middle add up, but they also mean that the last years of life are now more likely to occur in very old age, increasing the need for expensive 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."
— Taina Rantanen, University of Jyväskylä

The bottom line: As someone just on the other side of numerical midlife, I'll take it.

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