Seniors are smarter and stronger


Third Rock from the Sun / NBC, 1996-2001

Finnish scientists have found that older people are better able to cope with intellectual tasks and physical challenges. To find out, they compared the results of cognitive tests of a group of elderly people with the results of similar tests obtained in people of the same age 28 years ago - they write about this in the journal Aging Clinical and Experimental Research. A paper that the elderly are higher walking speed and muscle strength, published in the Journal of The Journals of Gerontology: Series A.



Aging is usually associated with a general deterioration in cognitive abilities, including memory, attention, speed of information processing, and problem-solving, which certainly affects the quality of human life. The same goes for physical health. There is a general tendency in the world to increase life expectancy, and at the same time, it is important to understand how its quality changes.


Taina Rantanen with a team of researchers from the University of Jyväskylä compared the performance of tests carried out in two large-scale research projects to study longevity: Evergreen project (1989-1990, 500 participants) and Evergreen II (2017-2018, 726 participants) ... In each of the projects, the subjects were people 75 and 80 years old, born in 1910-1914 (Evergreen project) and in 1938-1939 (Evergreen II), respectively. Both studies were carried out in the same laboratory using similar methods.


Participants were asked to take a series of tests to check their cognitive abilities and physical condition. To assess short-term auditory memory, the subjects were given a series of numbers, which they had to reproduce in the same and in reverse order. Using the Wechsler test, the speed of information processing and short-term visual memory was checked: the study participants had to memorize the proposed cipher, in which a certain symbol corresponded to one digit, and then correctly encrypt a certain numerical series within 90 seconds.


In addition to different types of short-term memory, other indicators of cognitive abilities were also tested. The subjects' verbal fluency was assessed - for this they were asked to name as many Finnish words beginning with the letter "K" as they could within three minutes - this test is considered very effective in identifying cognitive disorders since it forces the test taker not only to recall but also to categorize objects (words - by phonemic basis). The last cognitive test, the reaction rate, was carried out using a simple mechanism: the subject was placed in front of a set of buttons, next to each of which a light was periodically turned on. The participant's task was to press the corresponding button as quickly as possible. At the same time, the reaction rate was tested first by a simple test, where the light at the same button periodically came on,


The physical condition of the subjects was checked by the maximum walking speed at a distance of 10 meters, the maximum isometric force of compression of the hand (using a dynamometer ) and by the respiratory function spirometry, where the forced vital capacity (FVC), forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) were assessed separately. and peak expiratory flow (PEF). The participants in the experiment were also asked about their level of education and physical activity, as well as a subjective assessment of their health and well-being.


Comparing the results of tests for older people who were tested in 1989-1990 and in 2017-2018, the researchers found that the participants in the later sample performed better on most parameters (they compared groups of the corresponding gender and age): among men, a significant difference was found in Wechsler and verbal fluency tests for both 75- and 80-year-old participants (p ≤ 0.015). A statistically significant difference was also found in the complex test of reaction rate for samples of 75-year-old men (p = 0.049). For women, the difference in indicators turned out to be statistically significant in all trials (p ≤ 0.004), except for the test for short-term auditory memory in 80-year-old women.


Evaluating tests of physical parameters, the researchers identified the best indicators for both maximum isometric handgrip force and walking speed in the 2017-2018 subjects. The same applies to respiratory function, where the later sample had, on average, a large forced vital capacity, and among 80-year-old women, the forced expiratory volume in one second. At the same time, no differences were shown in the peak expiratory flow rate. It is important to note that, according to surveys, the time spent on education among the participants in the 2017-2018 sample was twice as high as in the previous sample (p ≤ 0.001), and the subjective assessment of their own health was also, on average, higher than in the late sample (p ≤ 0.001).



The authors associate the obtained results with the fact that the participants in the experiment grew up and lived in different conditions depending on the historical events of which they were contemporaries. The subjects of the late sample had a chance to live when positive trends in social life were observed: health and education systems, nutrition, and working conditions improved. The researchers note that an overall increase in life expectancy, and therefore in the period of activity, comes along with an improvement in its quality.


The cognitive abilities of older people can be influenced by a variety of factors, in addition to the availability of education and the quality of health care.

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