People Change Their Idea of When 'Old' Starts: Research

Survey asked thousands: 'At what age would you describe someone as old?'
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 22, 2024 7:30 PM CDT
Perception of Who's Old Changes, Researchers Find
Rosmarie Wydler-Walti, of Senior Women for Climate Protection, talks to Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, left, in Strasbourg, eastern France, on April 9.   (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

Presumably because few adults are in a rush to reach old age, people seem to push that starting line further away, researchers have found. "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," says Markus Wettstein, co-author of the study, which was published in the journal Psychology and Aging. The perception can vary by the person's age, health, birth cohort, and other factors, the Guardian reports. Researchers from Humboldt University of Berlin began by asking 14,056 adults, middle age and older, "At what age would you describe someone as old?"

Respondents answered the question one to eight times over a 25-year period starting in 1996, when they were 40 to 100 years old. "For those born in 1931, the perceived onset of old age is 74 when they are 65," Wettstein said. "For those born in 1944 it is about 75 years when they are 65 years old." Women named a higher age than men did for the onset of old age, while people who were in poor health or were lonely picked an earlier age, per the Guardian. But no single factor completely explained the results. Stereotypes—the perception that being old is not a good thing—could contribute.

"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," said Caroline Abrahams of Age UK. "Chronological age is rarely a good proxy for anything and the sooner we realize that in our society, the better," she added. The study did find signs that the perception of who's old has changed less in the past two decades, per the American Psychological Association. (More aging stories.)

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