The 'Silent Generation' are younger in their older age than previous generations, says new study

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  • Today's 75 to 80 year-olds are far better off cognitively and physically than three decades ago
  • Two Finnish groups from the same city were compared in a new study
  • Education, healthcare and other societal advancements are thought to have contributed to the changes

You're only as old as you feel. It seems this is especially true for the Silent Generation (born 1928–1945).

A Finnish study published in The Journals of Gerontology has found that compared to three decades ago, those between the ages of 75 and 80 are cognitively and physically far more advanced today.

READ | 10 fascinating facts on ageing 

90s vs. now

Using performance measures, they determined how well older people managed their daily lives without assistance. Basically, it calculates their "real" age, and according to the Flynn effect (the observed rise over time in standardised intelligence test scores), general age-related decline has dropped with each generation. This could be due to increased education, advances in technology and improved medical care.

They used two cohorts from the same city: the first taken in 1989–1990 from people born between 1910 and 1914, and the second group in 2017–2018 who were born between 1938 and 1943.

They assessed their memory, processing speed and verbal abilities, as well as their motor and mental functions. The younger cohort far outperformed their predecessors in all tests.

"The results provide strong evidence that older people today have better cognitive abilities compared to counterparts measured 28 years earlier," write the authors.

"The present results are unique as they derive from multiple highly relevant cognitive performance tests assessed with identical and highly comparable standardised measures in two comparable cohorts examined almost three decades apart.

"These results provide us with novel information about differences in cognitive performance in people growing old during different historical periods."

READ MORE | Even a little activity keeps ageing brains from shrinking

War times and agrarian lifestyle

The older group grew up in a time when Finland was more rural and agrarian, started working from an early age, and lived through times of war.

The younger group had twice as many years of education, were more physically active and thought of themselves as healthier. Their lives were more sheltered with the introduction of a welfare system post-war with more access to schooling.

Other differences include better healthcare, more urban living, smaller families, increased hygiene and less menial physical labour. Technological advancements could also have improved cognitive function.

Women also performed much better in the younger group, probably due to advancements made in equality over the decades.

"It has been reported that today’s 70-year-olds are as healthy as 60-year-olds or 65-year-olds were 30 years ago. Positive cohort differences in abilities such as reasoning suggest that people can be productively employed much longer in professions that require strong reasoning skills."

Effects of Covid-19

It is important, however, to note that these results could be very country-specific and might only be replicable in other Nordic countries that have similar histories. South Africa, for example, is likely to have very different results when one includes the Anti-Apartheid struggle and widening class inequalities. 

We also don't know what the effects of physical distancing and expected increases in health burdens as a result of the pandemic will have on the trend over the next 30 years.

READ | Coronavirus is expected to lower global life expectancy

Image credit: Pixabay

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