Nostalgia is a powerful feeling. People frequently pine for days and decades long past. During the 1960s, many idealized the roaring 1920s. But, by the time the neon 1980s arrived, tons of young people wished they had been alive during the 60s. Fast forward to today, and a desire to travel back to the beeper-filled days of the 1990s is a common recurring theme in pop culture.
Indeed, life always seems better back in the “good old days.” Now, though, a new study out of Finland is giving everyone reason to appreciate being alive in the here and now. Researchers from the University of Jyväskylä have found that elderly adults today are much healthier, both physically and mentally, than same-aged people living just three decades ago in the 1990s.
The research team says that while the elderly today may be technically the same age as their 1990s counterparts, their “functional age” is quite younger.
“Performance-based measurements describe how older people manage in their daily life, and at the same time, the measurements reflect one’s functional age,” says principal study investigator Professor Taina Rantanen in a university release.
A group of 726 people between the ages of 75 and 80 in 2017-2018 had their performances on a series of physical and cognitive assessments compared to the performances of 500 similarly aged individuals during the 1990s. The results leave little room for interpretation, researchers say. The elderly today have far superior “functional abilities.”
These findings are good news for pretty much everyone alive on the planet today. As technology and medicine continue to advance, there’s no reason why elderly life quality shouldn’t continue to improve in the decades to come.
In comparison to older adults living in the 90s, today’s elderly show stronger muscle strength, faster-walking speed, better verbal fluency, quicker reaction times, and more robust working/reasoning memory skills. Modern older adults showed no progress in only one category: lung functioning.
As far as why the elderly today are so much healthier than older generations, the study’s authors say there are various reasons, most of which are environmental.
“The cohort of 75- and 80-year-olds born later have grown up and lived in a different world than did their counterparts born three decades ago. There have been many favorable changes. These include better nutrition and hygiene, improvements in health care and the school system, better accessibility to education and improved working life,” explains Matti Munukka, a postdoctoral researcher.
“Higher physical activity and increased body size explained the better walking speed and muscle strength among the later-born cohort,” adds doctoral student Kaisa Koivunen, “whereas the most important underlying factor behind the cohort differences in cognitive performance was longer education.”
Life expectancy has steadily increased over the past few decades, and this study certainly suggests that with a longer lifespan also comes more “functional” years later on in life. The exact reasons for this relationship are unclear, but the study’s authors believe it can be narrowed down to two possible catalysts. The first is an overall slower pace of bodily changes with age, and the other possibility is that modern adults are reaching greater levels of fitness than their earlier counterparts. It’s also possible that both of these elements are at play.
Finally, there’s another factor to consider in all of this. As more and more people continue to enjoy a high quality of life well into old age and live longer in general, the inevitable last years of people’s lives will come at older and older ages. This means there will be more very old people in need of extra support and care.
While modern medicine and other advancements are extending both lifespans and the average amount of “functional” years, in the end, everyone’s body breaks down at some point.
“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,” professor Rantanen concludes.
That last point isn’t necessarily a positive or a negative, it’s just the reality of the situation. Still, on an individual level, it’s hard to see these findings as anything but a good thing. Nostalgia can be a lot of fun, but maybe the future won’t be so bad either.
The full study can be found here, published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences.