Seventy is the new 60 — or 50 — depending on what you read. This isn’t just a saying, but a new reality. Today, many older people live fully independent and healthy lives, even into their 90s. A study finds today's seniors are functionally younger than people of the same age were a few decades ago.

Just thirty years ago, many people in their 70s and 80s had less muscle strength, slower reaction times and slower walking speeds. They also scored lower on measures of verbal fluency, reasoning and memory compared to people of the same age today.

Finnish researchers compared the physical and cognitive performance of people between the ages of 75 and 80 today with those who were the same age in the 1990s.

Two groups of people were studied. The first set was made up of five hundred people born between 1910 and 1914. The second set consisted of just over 700 people born in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The physical and mental capabilities of those in both groups were evaluated at either age 75 or 80.

Using performance-based measurements to assess how older people manage in their daily lives, researchers at the University of Jyväskylä were able to get an idea of the functional age of the study participants. Functional age is different from chronological age. It is a measure of how an older person functions in daily life, regardless of their chronological age.

In many ways our understanding of old age is old-fashioned.

Older people today have better functional ability than people of the same age 30 years ago. Muscle strength, walking speed, reaction time, verbal fluency, reasoning and memory were found to be significantly better in people born in the late 1930s and early 1940s compared to people the same age who had been born earlier. One exception was lung function. No differences were seen there.

The better functional ability of today’s older adults can be attributed to increased physical activity and body size, Kaisa Koivunen, one of the researchers, said. The differences in mental functioning can be explained by longer education.

The 75- to 80-year olds who were born later lived in a different world from those born 30 years earlier. They grew up with better nutrition, hygiene practices, healthcare and education, which resulted in more years of good functional ability as they aged.

“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 come 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,” explained researcher Taina Rantanen, in a statement.

The uniqueness of this study lies in the fact that few studies have compared performance-based measurements to people of the same age living in different times.

The study was published in The Journals of Gerontology.