Pensioners believe old age now starts at nearly 75 years old

Old women laughing
Old women laughing

Pensioners believe old age now starts at nearly 75 years old – almost four years later than they thought in the 1970s, research has shown.

The new findings suggest that people perceive middle age as lasting well into the 70s, which likely reflects increases in lifespan and health over the past 50 years.

Since the 1970s, lifespan in Britain has increased from an average of 72 years to around 82 years.

To find out if the change had also impacted the perception of old age, European and US researchers looked at data from more than 14,000 people enrolled in the German Ageing Survey, which included Germans who were born as early as 1911.

The researchers found that compared with the earliest-born participants, later-born participants reported a later perceived onset of old age.

In the 1970s, when participants born in 1911 were 65 years old, they set the beginning of old age at 71. But those aged 65 in 2022 believed it started just before 75 on average.

Perception of old age

The team also found that the perception of when old age starts got higher the older people became. At age 74, the average person considered old age to start at nearly 77 years old.

“Life expectancy has increased, which might contribute to a later perceived onset of old age, said Dr Markus Wettstein, the study author, of Humboldt University of Berlin in Germany.

“Some aspects of health have improved over time, so that people of a certain age who were regarded as old in the past may no longer be considered old nowadays.”

Most people have an idea in their minds of when old age begins, or from which age they consider a person old. Scientists refer to the concept as “the perceived onset of old age” and it can vary widely between individuals.

This study is the first one to look at how the general consensus changes over time.

The researchers also examined how individual characteristics such as gender and health status contributed to differences in perceived onset of old age.

They found that women, on average, said that old age started two years later than men – and that the difference between men and women had increased over time.

At 65, modern females believe old age kicks in at around 76 compared to 74 for men.

Women still live longer than men, with the average man living to just 78 years, while the average woman lives to 82.

It suggests that a man or woman living to the average age would consider themselves to be “old” for between four and six years of their life.

More positive views on ageing

They also found that people who reported being more lonely, in worse health, and feeling older said old age began earlier, on average, than those who were less lonely, in better health, and felt younger.

Those who lived in East Germany also expected to feel old at a younger age.

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

“The trend toward postponing old age is not linear and might not necessarily continue in the future.”

The news study, which was in collaboration with Stanford University, the University of Luxembourg, was published in the journal Psychology and Ageing.