Image of Matti Munukka, from Jyväskylä University

A study comparing the physical and cognitive performance of people between the ages of 75 and 80 shows a trend of increasing functional abilities in later life.

When compared to this age group in the 1990s, older adults now have significantly greater muscle strength, walking speed, reaction speed, verbal fluency, reasoning and working memory, researchers from Jyväskylä University, Finland, have found.

Better walking speed and muscle strength can be explained by an overall increase in physical activity and increased body size, while better cognitive performance is likely due to more years spent in educational pursuits, said 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,” Munukka said. Favorable changes include better nutrition and hygiene, improvements in healthcare and the school system, better accessibility to education, and improved working life, he concluded.

But the outcomes of this trend are a mixed bag, Munukka added. Although increased life expectancy provides more non-disabled years in midlife, the last years of life come at higher and higher ages, increasing the need for care.

“The results suggest that our understanding of older age is old-fashioned,” Munukka said. “From an aging researcher’s point of view, more years are added to midlife, and not so much to the utmost end of life.” 

Full findings were published in the Journals of Gerontology.