At what age are you considered old? New research points to a shift

How old is considered old?

The answer to that question appears to be changing as people live longer, retire later and maintain higher levels of physical and mental health into their older years.

A study published Monday suggests that people in their mid-60s believe old age starts at 75 — but the older people get, the later they think it begins. 

The research, published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychology and Aging journal, examined data from around 14,000 participants in the German Aging Survey, which studies old age as a stage of life in Germany. The participants were born between 1911 and 1974 and entered the survey at ages 40 to 85.

The people studied reported their perceptions of old age up to eight times over 25 years. For every four to five years that passed, participants reported that old age started a year later compared to their last assessment.

Participants who were born earlier — from 1911 to 1935 — thought that old age started earlier compared with participants born after 1935. 

“Our perceptions or conceptions of old age are obviously shifting across historical time. People nowadays who are in midlife or who are older adults believe that old age begins later than did their peers 10 or 20 years ago,” said Markus Wettstein, the study’s lead author and a psychologist at Humboldt University of Berlin.

Wettstein said the change could be due, in part, to increases in life expectancy: German life expectancy is around 81 years, up from 71 years in 1974. Many people in Germany are also living healthier lives for longer. Studies have shown improvements in heart health, cognitive abilities and overall quality of life in the country’s older population over time.

“People who feel younger also believe that old age starts later,” Wettstein said.

Participants in the study who were lonelier, had more chronic diseases or reported being in poorer health were more likely to believe that old age started earlier.

Women, on average, thought that old age started around 2.4 years later than men did.

However, Jacqui Smith, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the research, cautioned that the results may not apply to other countries, since cultural views of aging and historical trends vary between communities. In the U.S., for instance, life expectancy declined during the COVID pandemic, from 79 years in 2019 to 76 in 2021 — whereas Germany’s life expectancy has been fairly consistent since 2014.

Still, Smith said, the study offers insight into how people’s perspectives on aging change as they get older.

“A lot of the work that we see in the literature is only taking a single snapshot of this phenomenon, a single point in time,” she said. “What this study is adding is that it’s comparing different people who were born at different times who’ve clearly gone through many different historical changes in their life.”

John Rowe, a professor of health policy and aging at Columbia University, said he found the results encouraging.

“I would say that this confirms in a very strong way, at least in Germany, that 70 is the new 60,” said Rowe, who also wasn’t involved in the study.

He theorized that people may be starting to shed some negative stereotypes about older people and view them instead as more capable or agile than in the past. However, both Rowe and Wettstein also said that some people in the study may have deliberately excluded themselves from the old age category because they saw it as undesirable.

“Some people have such a negative views of the elderly that they don’t want to be associated with them,” Rowe said. “So if they’re 70 years old, they’ll say old age begins at 75. And when they get to 75, they’ll say old age begins at 80.”

Of course, age doesn’t always correlate with health status.

“We can’t equate any sort of general transition in age to the way that people are actually functioning,” Smith said.

However, people’s perceptions of aging could affect their health.

Past research has shown that negative beliefs about getting older are linked to higher stress levels, which in turn may increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. Studies have conversely shown that people with positive views of aging are less likely to develop dementia and tend to live longer than people with more negative views of aging. 

People who see themselves as younger than their actual age have also exhibited slower memory declines, better cognitive performance and reduced symptoms of depression, while people who perceive themselves as older have a higher risk of mortality.

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