The physical and cognitive health of people aged 75 to 80 is significantly better than the same age three decades ago


The functional ability of older people is nowadays better when it is compared to that of people at the same age three decades ago.

This was observed in a study conducted at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

The study compared the physical and cognitive performance of people nowadays between the ages of 75 and 80 with that of the same-aged people in the 1990s.

“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 the principal investigator of the study, Professor Taina Rantanen.

Among men and women between the ages of 75 and 80, muscle strength, walking speed, reaction speed, verbal fluency, reasoning and working memory are nowadays significantly better than they were in people at the same age born earlier. In lung function tests, however, differences between cohorts were not observed.

“Higher physical activity and increased body size explained the better walking speed and muscle strength among the later-born cohort,” says doctoral student Kaisa Koivunen, “whereas the most important underlying factor behind the cohort differences in cognitive performance was longer education.”

Postdoctoral researcher Matti Munukka continues: “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.

There have been many favourable changes. These include better nutrition and hygiene, improvements in health care and the school system, better accessibility to education and improved working life.”

The results suggest that increased life expectancy is accompanied by an increased number of years lived with good functional ability in later life.

The observation can be explained by slower rate-of-change with increasing age, a higher lifetime maximum in physical performance, or a combination of the two.

“This research is unique because there are only a few studies in the world that have compared performance-based maximum measures between people of the same age in different historical times,” says Rantanen.

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

Increased life expectancy provides us with more non-disabled years, but at the same time, the last years of life comes at higher and higher ages, increasing the need for care.

Among the ageing 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.”

The study was conducted at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences and Gerontology Research Center at University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

The first cohort data were collected between 1989 and 1990 and consisted of 500 people born between 1910 and 1914. The second cohort data were collected from 2017 to 2018 and comprised 726 people born in 1938 or 1939 and 1942 or 1943.

In both cohorts, the participants were assessed at the age 75 or 80 years. Participants were recruited from the Digital and Population Data Services Agency.

Leisure activities (hereafter LA) can be defined as activities people engage in during free time [1]. Engagement in LAs has been found to be positively associated with cognitive function, physical function, and mental health in late adulthood and in the elderly. The possible protective effects of LA engagement against aging-related decline have thus been the object of investigation in the last two decades.

Of these three outcomes, preserved cognitive function has received most attention and the link with LA engagement in the elderly is well established [2–5]. Three possible explanations have been proposed for the observed relationship between cognitive function and LA engagement.

First, practicing mentally challenging activities (e.g., music, board games, video games, and brain training) may enhance overall cognitive function [6]. However, this idea has received little adequate empirical support [7–9] in the general population.

Second, people exhibiting superior overall cognitive function may be more likely to engage in LAs that are cognitive demanding. This hypothesis has been corroborated by numerous studies in the field of chess and music [10,11].

Finally, engaging in intellectually demanding LAs may slow down cognitive decline. This idea relies on the so-called “use it or lose it” hypothesis according to which engaging in intellectually demanding activities helps to preserve cognitive function in the elderly [12,13].

This hypothesis has received some support by studies implementing dual-change approaches to test for causality between LA engagement and preserved cognitive function [14,15].

Compared to the link between LA engagement and cognitive function, the impact of LA engagement on physical function has been less studied [16]. Most research has focused on the adverse effects of illness and injuries on LA engagement.

Reduced LA engagement has, in turn, detrimental effects on indicators of mental health such as well-being and life satisfaction [17].

The field has thus paid more attention to how physical function influences LA engagement rather than vice-versa. Another line of research has examined the effects of physical activity and LAs (as independent variables) on cognitive function [12,18].

Finally, LA engagement seems to be related to mental health as well. Mental health aspects such as well-being and life satisfaction have been found to positively correlate with LA engagement in several studies (for a review, see [17]). Studies implementing a longitudinal design have confirmed these findings [19].

Nonetheless, the amount of robust experimental evidence is still modest [20].

Considering its positive effects for key dimensions of functioning in older age, LA engagement seems to have an important role for successful aging. In their seminal article, Rowe and Kahn [21] introduced the concept of successful aging in opposition to usual aging.

While usual aging emphasizes the non-pathological aging (e.g., absence of disease), successful aging captures an optimal aging process. Successful aging is, according to Rowe and Kahn, best characterized by the concurrent presence of three dimensions, namely high cognitive and physical function, low probability of disease and disability, and active engagement in life.

The latter captures the involvement in productive and social activities, giving those activities a similar importance as health and functioning for successful aging. The importance of activities for successful aging has also been stressed very early on in other seminal theories, including activity theory by Havighurst, Neugarten, and Tobin [22].

Such more multidimensional conceptualizations of successful aging have resulted in complementing prior approaches by including mental-health related dimensions such as well-being [17,23–25].

Here, we investigate the relationship between engagement in LAs and fundamental dimensions of successful aging such as cognitive function, physical function, and mental health.


The present study reported an SEM model examining the relationship between LA engagement and three essential dimensions of successful aging (i.e., cognitive function, physical function, and mental health) in a large sample of Japanese older adults.

In line with substantial research into the field, the results confirmed the link between LA engagement and cognitive function. However, the size of the effect was meaningfully smaller than the one reported in previous studies. Similar effects were found for physical function and mental health.

The investigation significantly extends our knowledge in the field. First, thanks to a more comprehensive modeling approach, the study provides a more reliable estimate of the impact of LA engagement on cognitive function.

Second, due to the use of multiple and objective physical indicators, it adds much-needed evidence of a link between LA engagement and preservation of good physical function in the elderly. Similar considerations apply to the influence of LA engagement in older adults’ mental health.

Third, the findings suggest that the role played by LA engagement is cultural-independent.

Finally, our study sheds some light on mechanisms of LA engagement that have not been much (if not at all) investigated so far, such as the bidirectional effects of practicing LAs on cognitive function and physical function.

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Source: University of Jyväskylä


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