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Older adults are much happier and healthier than they were 30 years ago

A recent study conducted at the Gerontology Research Center at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyväskylä in Finland, has uncovered fascinating insights into the mental well-being of older adults. 

The researchers set out to examine the differences in depressive symptoms and life satisfaction between two groups of 75- and 80-year-olds: those living in the 1990s and their contemporaries today.

The study revealed that today, older adults experience fewer depressive symptoms than their counterparts in the 1990s. This notable difference can be partly attributed to the better perceived health and higher education levels of the individuals born later. 

Professor Taina Rantanen from the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences explained: “In our previous comparisons, we found that older people today have significantly better physical and cognitive functioning at the same age compared to those born earlier. These new results complement these positive findings in terms of mental well-being.”

Interestingly, the research also found that today’s 75- and 80-year-olds are more satisfied with their lives to date. However, when it comes to satisfaction with their current lives, no significant difference was observed between the two groups. In fact, 80-year-old men who lived in the 1990s appeared to be even more satisfied with their current lives than their modern-day counterparts.

Postdoctoral researcher Tiia Kekäläinen offers an explanation for this phenomenon, stating, “These men born in 1910 had lived through difficult times, which may explain their satisfaction with their current lives in the 1990s when many things were better than before.” 

“Individuals adapt to their situation and living conditions. Both in the 1990s and today, the majority of older adults reported being satisfied with their current lives.”

To conduct this groundbreaking study, the researchers examined two separate cohorts. The first cohort consisted of 617 individuals born in 1910 and 1914 who participated in the Evergreen study in 1989-1990. The second cohort included 794 individuals born in 1938-1939 and 1942-1943 who participated in the AGNES study in 2017-2018. Both groups were assessed at the age of 75 or 80 years. 

The study received funding from the Academy of Finland and the European Research Council.

The findings of this study, published in the Journal of Aging and Health, highlight the improved mental well-being of older adults in the present day and how society has evolved to support healthier aging. 

While the research provides encouraging news for the future, it also underscores the importance of continuing to address the challenges faced by older individuals to ensure their overall well-being and satisfaction with life.

Evolution of human life expectancy

Over the past few centuries, the average human lifespan has increased significantly, mainly due to advances in healthcare, nutrition, sanitation, and living conditions. This has resulted in people living longer and healthier lives, with some regional variations.

In the early 18th century, the average global life expectancy was around 30 years. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, this figure had increased to about 50 years. In the 21st century, the average global life expectancy has further increased to approximately 72 years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

There are several factors that have contributed to the increase in the average lifespan over the past few centuries:

Improved healthcare

Medical science has made significant strides in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of various diseases. The discovery of antibiotics, vaccinations, and the development of better medical procedures have all contributed to the decline in mortality rates.

Better nutrition

Advances in agriculture and food distribution have led to improved access to a more balanced and diverse diet for many people. Proper nutrition plays a crucial role in supporting growth, development, and overall health.

Sanitation and hygiene

Improvements in water supply, sanitation, and hygiene have played a significant role in reducing the spread of infectious diseases. Access to clean drinking water and proper waste disposal systems has helped prevent waterborne diseases, which were once major causes of death.

Public health measures

Public health initiatives, such as mass vaccinations, health education, and the promotion of healthier lifestyles, have contributed to the overall improvement in life expectancy.

Socioeconomic development

As societies have developed and economies have grown, living standards have improved, leading to better housing, education, and access to healthcare services. This has directly impacted the average lifespan of people living in these communities.

It’s important to note that life expectancy can vary greatly between different countries and regions, due to factors such as economic development, healthcare systems, and cultural practices. 

While the global average life expectancy has increased overall, disparities still exist, highlighting the need for continued efforts to improve living conditions and healthcare access for older adults.


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