Ninety-somethings seem to be getting smarter. Today’s oldest people are surviving longer, and thankfully appear to have sharper minds than the people reaching their 90s 10 years ago.
Kaare Christensen, head of the Danish Aging Research Center at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, and colleagues found Danish people born in 1915 were about a third more likely to live to their 90s than those born in 1905, and were smarter too.
During research, which spanned 12 years and involved more than 5000 people, the team gave nonagenarians born in 1905 and 1915 a standard test called a “mini-mental state examination”, and cognitive tests designed to pick up age-related changes. Not only did those born in 1915 do better at both sets of tests, more of them also scored top marks in the mini-mental state exam.
It’s a landmark study, says Marcel Olde Rikkert, head of the Alzheimer’s centre at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in the Netherlands. It is scientifically rigorous, it invited all over 90-year-olds in Denmark to participate, and it also overturns our ingrained views of old age, he says.
“The outcome underlines that ageing is malleable,” Olde Rikkert says, adding that cognitive function can actually be a lot better than people would assume until a very high age.
“It’s motivating that people, their lifestyles, and their environments can contribute a lot to the way they age,” he says, though he cautions that not everything is in our own hands and help is still needed for those with dementia or those who do experience cognitive decline as they age.
Improved education played a part in the changes, says Christensen. But the study does not disentangle the individual effects of the numerous things that could be responsible for the improvements. “The 1915 cohort had a number of factors on their side – they experienced better living and working conditions, they had radio, TV and newspapers earlier in their lives than those born 10 years before,” he says.
Tellingly, there was no difference in the physical test results between the two groups. The authors say this “suggests changes in the intellectual environment rather than in the physical environment are the basis for the improvement”.
Journal reference: The Lancet, DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)60777-1