Perception of when old age starts has increased over time, shows study

<span>‘Chronological age is rarely a good proxy for anything and the sooner we realise that, the better,’ said an Age UK director.</span><span>Photograph: FS-Stock/Alamy</span>
‘Chronological age is rarely a good proxy for anything and the sooner we realise that, the better,’ said an Age UK director.Photograph: FS-Stock/Alamy

None of us are getting any younger, but it appears the age at which we are considered old has moved upwards over the generations.

What’s more, as adults get older, they shift the goalposts further still, a study has shown.

The researchers behind the study said the upward shift could be down to increases in life expectancy and retirement age, as well as other factors.

“We should be aware that conceptions and perceptions of ‘old’ change across historical time, and that people are quite different regarding when they think old age begins, dependent on their age, their birth cohort, but also their health etc,” said Dr Markus Wettstein, co-author of the study, from the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Writing in the journal Psychology and Aging, Wettstein and colleagues report how they analysed responses to the question: “At what age would you describe someone as old?”, which is part of the ongoing German ageing survey that follows people born between 1911 and 1974.

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The results from 14,056 middle-aged and older adults who answered the question between one and eight times over a 25-year period from 1996, when they were between 40 and 100 years old, reveals that the point at which old age is thought to begin has increased.

“For those born in 1931, the perceived onset of old age is 74 when they are 65. For those born in 1944 it is about 75 years when they are 65 years old,” said Wettstein, adding that while the study could not ask 65-year-olds born in 1911 when they thought old age began, models suggest it would have been at 71.

However, it seems perceptions are stabilising: while the team found people born after 1935 perceived old age as beginning later in life than those born between 1911 and 1935, there was no noticeable difference between those born between 1936 and 1951 and those born between 1952 and 1974.

Further, as people get older, they revise the age they consider to be old upwards.

“This could have to do with the fact that many people do not want to be old, so they postpone the onset of old age,” said Wettstein, adding that that could be related to age stereotypes.

However, it seems those born in later cohorts shift the goalposts to a greater extent: while people born in 1944 revised their notion of old age upwards by 1.9 years on ageing from 64 to 74, those born in 1934 shifted their view by less than a month between these ages.

The team add that while the perception of when old age begins was higher for women than men, and lower for those who had poor health or were more lonely, neither these factors nor education level or how old participants felt, fully explained their findings.

Caroline Abrahams, the charity director at Age UK, said it was well known that people tended to judge “old” as meaning at least a few years beyond their chronological age, even in their 70s and 80s, and that probably reflects the bad image of “old” in western cultures.

“This is a shame if it holds us back from living as full and happy lives as we could and should in our later years, because of us self-limiting our activities and aspirations,” she said.

Instead, Abrahams said the idea that we are “as old as we feel” is a lot more supportive.

“The truth is that chronological age is rarely a good proxy for anything and the sooner we realise that in our society, the better,” she said.