Maybe the 90s are the new 80s

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

A friend who has spent a lifetime studying Alzheimer's disease once offered this double-edged observation: Once you make it to age 90, your odds of avoiding the disease dramatically improve.

Turns out he may have been offering more than a bit of thinly veiled gallows humor. A study out this week offers this reassuring conclusion: turning 90 may not be as hazardous to your health as it used to be.

Full findings, which appear in The Lancet, seem to counter to the perception that ill health will inevitably be riding shotgun on life's long journey.

“If this development continues, the future functional problems and care needs of very elderly people might be less than are anticipated,” the Danish researchers noted.

Kaare Christensen, of the University of Southern Denmark, examined data on two large groups of Danes. One cohort was born in 1905, and the other in 1915.

When they reached their mid-90s both groups were put through several mental and physical tests. The battery was designed to assess such factors as memory, grip strength and how easy the subjects found it to walk outside. While those born in 1915 were two years older when they were tested, they still outperformed their predecessors. Not only were they mentally sharper, they also found daily life easier to navigate. Moreover, a memory test used to diagnose Alzheimer's also posed fewer problems for the 90-somethings born later.

The researchers cautioned that this is hardly the final word. But they did speculate on why the new generation of 90-somethings appeared to enjoy more robust health: better medical care, improved living conditions, healthier diet and greater intellectual stimulation.

At the risk of reading too much into this, there do appear to be some takeaways for senior living operators. If these conclusions are relevant, it would appear that older residents in the future will not be as frail as those in the past (assuming seniors continue to exploit the same health-prolonging advantages). They also may be less susceptible to developing dementia. Put another way, seniors may be able to delay by years the conditions and functional limitations that land them in long-term care settings.

That may be a bit of a mixed blessing for operators looking to keep beds filled. But for those of us hoping to delay our need for long-term care services for as long as possible, it's welcome news indeed.

John O'Connor is the editorial director at McKnight's. Follow him on Twitter at @ltcritr.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.