The older we get, the more likely it is to have chronic health problems. But that’s not a limitation to modern medicine, which has advanced far from what it was initially thought. Life expectancy has become more extensive as a result of numerous advancements in medical care. Our modern technology has also made a significant effort to improve our quality of life as we age. Society is becoming more conscious about prevention, and health literacy contributes significantly to a healthier community.
No wonder why older adults in modern times feel healthier than our ancestors did. They do not only live longer, but they are also healthier.
Healthier older adults in modern times
If you met older adults some 20 or 30 years ago, you probably remember chronic disease and many health problems. The risk of modern older adults for the same health problems is considerably lower, and this is a fact we can back up with scientific evidence.
According to a study performed in Finland, older people in modern times are considerably healthier. They have better physical capacities and preserve more cognitive functions than they did in the past.
In this test, a few hundred participants went through several tests to evaluate their physical and cognitive health. These participants were 75 to 80 years old by the moment of the initial study. The same study with the same tests was then performed in new participants, now in the years 2017 and 2018. They were also Finlanders around the same age (75 to 80 years old). Still, their results were quite different from those reported 30 years earlier.
These were the most significant differences:
- Modern older adults have faster walking speeds. They are 0.2 to 0.4 meters per second faster on average
- Modern older adults are stronger. Their grip strength is variably higher, 5 to 25% stronger.
- Their knee extension strength is also higher, an average of 20 to 47%.
- They have better cognitive functions, as examined in their reasoning, verbal fluency, and working memory.
In other words, the modern group of older adults does not only feel younger and have a better life expectancy. They are also considerably younger after measuring their physical and cognitive health. All of these performance and mental health tests are a clear and objective reflection of the individual’s functional age, according to the lead author of this study, Taina Rantaren. She is a professor of public health and gerontology at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. She mentions that such improved performances are objective and real. They are likely the result of two mechanisms: a slower aging process in modern older adults or a higher peak ability in the same parameters than previous generations.
The role of health literacy and education
Why is it that modern older adults are objectively younger than those of previous generations? One explanation has to do with education and health literacy, as noted by another study published recently.
It can be read in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, and it was published in August 2020, finding evidence that people with a higher educational level has more pronounced cognitive abilities in later adulthood and as older adults, and this, in turn, makes their aging, physical and cognitive decline less noticeable.
This finding was also noted by the Finland study mentioned above. The researchers reported a relationship between better cognitive functions in older adults and higher education achievements. Matti Munkka, the coauthor of the scientific paper, explains that the new cohort grew in a different world with improvements in terms of healthcare, nutrition, education opportunities, working conditions, and hygiene.
Thus, Rantanen states, we need to remodel our concept and understanding of the aging process. Our current ideas about aging were appropriate for times past but are now becoming old-fashioned and outdated. Our lifespan is becoming more extended, and this understanding is vital for the quality of life during these extra years.