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What age is “old?”

It depends on who you ask… but the trend is, well, older.

A new study conducted by a team of researchers from Germany and the United States and published in the journal Psychology and Aging reveals that the definition of “old age” is changing. 

People now consider themselves “old” later in life compared to past generations.

The German Ageing Survey analyzed data from 14,000 people born between 1911 and 1974. Participants were asked one single question: “At what age would you describe someone as old?”

The team’s research shows that individuals in their mid-60s typically perceive “old age” as beginning at around 75. However, this perception varies significantly across different generations or “birth cohorts.” People born after 1935, in particular, tend to raise the age at which they consider someone old. In other words, over time, the threshold for being considered “old” has shifted upwards.

According to Dr. Markus Wettstein from Humboldt University in Germany, life expectancy has increased, which may result in people perceiving the onset of old age later than before. Certain aspects of health have improved over time, causing individuals of a particular age who were once considered “old” to no longer be regarded as such.

Various factors contribute to the shifting perspective of “old age.” As people live longer, the definition of old age naturally gets pushed further out. Changes to retirement age can also play a role in this shift. For instance, in Germany, the retirement age has been gradually increasing from 65 and is set to reach 67 by 2031. In the US, the retirement age is 65 for men and 63 for women. If individuals are working for longer periods, it is understandable that they may not consider themselves “old” until later in life.

The researchers found that delaying old age has become a growing trend in recent decades, but it may have reached a plateau. The perception of when old age starts has changed significantly between people born from 1911 to 1935 and those born from 1936 to 1951. However, there was little difference between the latter group and those born from 1952 to 1974. The researchers speculate that this may be due to a slowdown in life expectancy increases. Dr. Wettstein notes that this trend is not linear and might not continue in the future.

The study shows some notable differences in how people perceive old age based on demographics. On average, women believe that old age begins two and a half years later than men. This gender gap has become more pronounced in younger generations. People living in former East Germany, who have a lower life expectancy, think that old age starts earlier than their counterparts in West Germany. Moreover, the perception of old age starting sooner is linked to feeling lonely, having more chronic diseases, and having poorer self-rated health.

But why does it matter when you think old age starts? Our perception can impact our health and well-being. Research has shown that people who believe that old age starts later tend to have better self-rated health and lower risks of heart disease and other illnesses. On the other hand, perceiving the onset of old age as earlier is associated with worse health outcomes.

The researchers warn, though, that if we delay “old age” too much, it may have the opposite effect of making people less prepared for the challenges that come with aging. There could be an optimum balance between health and well-being. Additionally, the study highlights how individual factors and our cultural and historical context influence our perceptions of aging. As life expectancy has increased and the health of older adults has generally improved, outdated ideas of what it means to be “old” are being updated.

“It is unclear to what extent the trend towards postponing old age reflects a trend towards more positive views on older people and aging, or rather the opposite — perhaps the onset of old age is postponed because people consider being old to be an undesirable state,” explains Dr. Wettstein.

Aging is personal, and there’s no fixed age at which you should consider yourself “old.” Delaying old age reflects a shift towards a better perception of aging, but our perception can only impact so much. We must prepare for the unique challenges and joys of growing older and focus on living well at every age.

No matter where you are in life, there’s always room for improvement! Pick an area of your life that you think could be improved and make small, reasonable steps toward it. Every day of life is a gift and we owe it to the giver to try and make the most of it!