Researchers at the Danish Aging Research Center at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense compared the mental and physical abilities at age 93 of Danes born in 1905 with those of a second group born in 1915 — at age 95.
Despite being two years older at assessment, the 1915 group scored better on both cognitive tests and the ability to carry out basic activities such as getting out of a chair.
There were 2,262 in the 1905 group and 1,584 in the 1915 group.
"This finding suggests that more people are living to older ages with better overall functioning," editors of the medical journal The Lancet said. "If this development continues, the future functional problems and care needs of very elderly people might be less than are anticipated."
The researchers suspect that better diets earlier in life, education and physical activity accounted for the better performance.
"Are we not only living longer, but are we living better?" the study's lead author, Dr. Kaare Christensen, head of the Danish Aging Research Center at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, said in a YouTube presentation of the findings.
That's an open question in Canada, said Parminder Raina, a professor in the department of clinical epidemiology & biostatistics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
Raina is the principal investigator for the Canadian Longitudinal Study of Aging — a study of 50,000 men and women across Canada between the ages of 45 and 85 who will be followed for the next 20 years using questionnaires, physical assessments and collection of blood and urine samples.
Raina points out that one of the limitations of the Danish study is that Christensen's team lacked data from a disease perspective.
"It's one thing to have average score of cognition. But it would be nice to see were there differences in how people developed dementia and Alzheimer's disease," said Raina.
"Eighty per cent of the current living older people are living independently in their own communities. But the 20 per cent who have very complex diseases, they require the health-care system to support them. So the question is how do continue to keep these people in good health and in their own homes?"
The Canadian Longitudinal Study of Aging will look at how people's cognitive status changes over time, including the consequences of differences diseases and disability in terms of living independently. Researchers are also interested n looking at how social inequalities determine how people age, Raina said.
In 2011, Canada had 218,495 residents 90 and older, according to Statistics Canada.
Betty Convery of Toronto celebrated her 90th birthday in June by walking around top of the CN Tower, 365 metres above the ground.
"I feel you have to keep active," Convery advised. "Keep moving and keep an interest in what's going on around you."
Convery has observed a difference in earlier generations. Convery said she used to visit her grandmother in a nursing home when she was in her 80s. "I don't think they had nearly the activities that I am able to do here."
The Danish study was funded by the Danish National Research Foundation, the U.S. National Institute on Aging, Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation and Velux Foundation.
The Canadian study is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.