When does ‘old age’ really begin? Seniors think 75 is the new 65

BERLIN — Are we getting older later in life? People dread the idea of aging, however, a new study from an international team of researchers reveals the definition of “old age” is changing. Compared to previous generations, people now put off considering themselves “old” until later in life.

The study, conducted by a team of researchers from Germany and the United States and published in the journal Psychology and Aging, analyzed data from over 14,000 people born between 1911 and 1974 who participated in the ongoing German Ageing Survey. Participants were asked a simple question: “At what age would you describe someone as old?”

According to the team’s findings, people in their mid-60s believe “old age” begins around 75. This perception, though, varied significantly across different generations or “birth cohorts.” People born later, especially those born after 1935, tended to push back the age at which they considered someone old. In other words, the threshold for being considered “old” has shifted upwards over time.

Elderly, older hands
Compared to previous generations, people now put off considering themselves “old” until later in life. (pexels.com)

Life expectancy has increased, which might contribute to a later perceived onset of old age. Also, 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,” says study author Dr. Markus Wettstein from Humboldt University in Germany in a media release.

Several factors are driving this change in perspective of “old age.” With people living longer, the goalpost for what’s considered old naturally moves further out. Changes to retirement age could also have an impact. In Germany, the retirement age has gradually increased from 65 and will reach 67 by 2031. If people are working longer, it makes sense they may not consider themselves “old” until later.

What piqued researchers’ interest is that they found the trend of delaying old age has accelerated in recent decades but may now be reaching a plateau. While people born between 1911-1935 and 1936-1951 had very different perceptions of when old age started, there was little difference between the 1936-1951 cohort and those born 1952-1974. They speculate this could be due to a slowdown in life expectancy increases.

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

The study also revealed some interesting demographic differences. Women, on average, considered old age to start two-and-a-half years later than men did. This gender gap has gotten even wider in younger generations. People living in former East Germany, who have a lower life expectancy, tended to peg the beginning of old age earlier than their West German counterparts. Feeling lonely, having more chronic diseases, and worse self-rated health were also linked to considering old age to start sooner.

So why does it matter when we consider old age to begin? Our perception can actually have real impacts on health and well-being. Previous studies have shown that people who believe old age starts later tend to have better self-rated health and lower risks of heart disease and other illnesses. Conversely, perceiving the onset of old age as earlier is associated with worse health outcomes.

Researchers caution that if we postpone “old age” too far into the future, it could backfire by making people complacent about preparing for the challenges that come with aging. There may be an optimal middle ground in terms of health and well-being.

The findings also underscore how our concepts of aging are shaped not just by individual characteristics but by the social and historical context we live in. As life expectancy has increased and health in later life has generally improved, outdated notions of what it means to be “old” are being revised.

Happy older senior couple exercising or working out
People in their mid-60s believe old age begins around 75. (© NDABCREATIVITY – stock.adobe.com)

“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.

Of course, aging is a highly individual experience, and there’s no universally “right” age to consider oneself old. The fact that people are pushing back the onset of old age could reflect a positive shift toward a more nuanced, less stereotypical view of aging. At the same time, the study is a reminder that our perceptions don’t change reality — we still need to plan for the unique challenges and joys that come with growing older whenever we consider that journey to begin. Ultimately, the take-home message may be to focus less on defining “old” and more on living well at every age.

StudyFinds’ Matt Higgins contributed to this report.

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  1. I’m 68. My spouse died 5 years ago at age 62. I take care of a severely handicapped special needs adult-child without help after they were neglected and abused in a group home. The authorities didn’t care when I reported it. Some days I feel ‘OK,’ while other days I feel utterly depleted and wonder how I will make it another day. I walk outdoors, watch what I eat and never smoked. I have to keep going. Who is going to be there for my adult-child when I die or become incapacitated – some other place which will do the same?

    All this ‘age’ nonsense has more to do with the government wanting to reduce/delay/eliminate benefits – nothing more. My spouse collected 2 whole months worth of benefits before death – then I had to repay the second month of benefits after death since they died at the end of the month.

    I’ll bet most folks don’t know that SS claws back the final SS check – even if the person dies on the 31st!

    The government wants us to work as long as possible, pay into the system so they can squander it on other projects, then have us die as soon as possible to keep that ‘benefit’ money which we paid into the system. LIFE EXPECTANCY actually DECREASED these last few years.

    When FDR signed Social Security into law back in the 30’s, the average life expectancy was 59 years of age. To collect, you had to be 62. The government expected most folks to be dead or die soon so they could use that money elsewhere.

    What a great system (sarcasm) the politicians have devised.

  2. All the comments by these old people prove the point……. that you don’t ever realize when dementia hits

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