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Mental performance of people aged in their nineties 'improving'

Human beings are not only living longer, but are also enjoying a better quality of cognitive abilities into older age, a new study into mental performance in the elderly has found.

Image: Diego Cervo via Shutterstock

HUMANS ARE NOT only living longer, but are also enjoying a better quality of cognitive abilities into older age, a new study into mental performance in the elderly has found.

People who reach their nineties today show improved performance compared to people in the same age group born a decade earlier, the study conducted at the University at Southern Denmark in Odense shows.

Researchers used information from the Danish Civil Register System to identify two groups. The first group involved people who were born in 1905 and who were still living in 1998 (aged 92–93 years), with a total of 2,262 people in this group. The second group involved people born in 1915 (aged 94–95 years) with 1,584 people participating.

The participants of the studies were surveyed using both physical and cognitive tests and interviews, with a view to assessing mental impairment; fluency and recall abilities; depression symptoms; and ability to carry out daily tasks, eg walking inside and outside. If participants were unable to respond personally, due to either a physical or mental handicap, the tests were conducted using a proxy responder.

The study, published in leading medical journal The Lancet, found that people born in 1915 were nearly a third (32 per cent) more likely to reach the age of 95 than those in the 1905 – and, that’s more, also performed better in both cognitive ability daily activities tests. The 1915 group achieved better average test scores, with a substantially higher proportion of that group achieving maximum scores in cognition tests despite being older at the time of testing than the 1905 group.

Educational attainment was, on average, slightly higher in the 1915 group, but the difference was only statistically significant in women – who, overall, had very low levels of education in both groups. This data, researchers said, indicated that the difference in mental performance observed between the two groups was unlikely to be down to educational attainment.

“Even after adjusting for the increase in education between the 1905 and 1915 cohorts, the 1915 cohort still performed better in the cognitive measures, which suggests that changes in other factors such as nutrition, burden of infectious disease, work environment, intellectual stimulation, and general living conditions also play an important part in the improvement of cognitive functioning,” the authors of the study said.

“The study challenges speculations that the improving longevity is the result of the survival of very frail and disabled elderly people,” said the study’s leader, Professor Kaare Christensen. “Our results suggest that the functioning of people who reach their nineties is improving in Denmark, and increasing longevity associated with improved living conditions and healthcare may result in not just longer lives, but also that elderly are functioning better for longer than in earlier generations.”

Column: We need to make our society and cities age-friendly

Read: Why older people struggle to read fine print

Column: We think of older people as a burden. In fact, they’re anything but.

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