Categories: Environmental Issues

When Does Old Age Start? It Depends on Who You Ask

May 2, 2024 – When does old age begin? Evidently, it depends on who you ask. And when you were born. For millions of people born between 1952 and 1974, the line in the sand between middle and old age is a moving target, according to German researcher Markus Wettstein, PhD. 

“Every 4 or 5 years, our perceived onset of old age has shifted one year or higher,” said Wettstein, who, along with a team of researchers from the Humboldt University of Berlin, examined data collected from over 14,000 German adults born during the 20th century, starting in 1911.         

Their findings, published in late April, showed that while there was a trend among people born later to believe that old age started later in life than those who were born earlier, it may not continue into the future. One reason is the increase in life expectancy has slowed, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a factor that Wettstein said holds important implications for today’s younger adults who might ultimately struggle to age with grace and in health.

“Though we found that nowadays, individuals feel younger than individuals did in the past, other studies have shown that stereotypes about aging have become more negative over time, especially in the U.S.,“ Wettstein said. In North America in particular, these attitudes depict older people as a homogenous group living with frailty, poor health, dependency, and mental decline. “The thing is, you get older and at some point in time, you become the victim of your own stereotypes and they become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The Digital Divide and Family Ties

Perhaps one of the most important factors driving changing trends around perceptions of old age has been digitization. For many late baby boomers and Gen Xers (who have learned to toe the digital divide), technology has been a boon to work, access, and health. But the impact on digital natives – millennials and Gen Z – may be permanent. 

While the topic is just starting to be studied in earnest, there is research suggesting that social deprivation during key developmental years not only produces changes in the brain, but may also increase feelings of loneliness and decrease happiness – factors that have been shown to accelerate aging, including an increase in chronic conditions in older years. Wettstein and his co-researchers also pointed out that differences in loneliness in the study, especially in middle age, possibly resulted in differing perceptions.

“While social connections are happening online, there’s less connecting in person and seeing its value and impact. It doesn’t come naturally,” said Shira Schuster, PhD, a psychologist at the Williamsburg Therapy Group in Brooklyn, NY. “I’ve had a lot of younger patients tell me that they’d rather not speak to a person, say, to make a dinner reservation. How do you convince them that that could have detrimental long-term effects?” 

Strong family ties, including the presence of older adults in the home or in the lives of adolescents, has also been associated with almost a 50% greater likelihood of flourishing, according to research.

“We’ve created almost every technological convenience – the car, the telephone, the airplane, the internet – everything to advance us and make life more convenient,” said Wendy Tayer, PhD, a geropsychologist at the University of California-San Diego Health. “But the cost of that is that it’s separated us physically; since the family has broken apart, we’ve become less informed about aging and less respectful of it.”

Minorva Ceide, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist and associate professor of geriatrics and psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, agreed. 

“When you think about it more traditionally, you would have your cohort of friends, but there was a lot of time within larger extended family situations where you were spending time with an older person and watching those transitions and learning from them,” said Ceide. “I’ve had trainees tell me that before they came to this rotation their only exposure to an older adult was a grandmother who was really ill and stayed with them.”

Thus, for many young adults, the only major interaction with older individuals is associated with illness, meaning that they are missing out on learning about the more positive experiences of aging, such as resilience, great sense and acceptance of self, and the wisdom that is part and parcel of life experience.

“Being around older people and not marginalizing them – which I think a lot of us tend to do subconsciously, is a good way to redefine our perception of what it means to be old,” said Liz Seegert, an independent health writer who often writes about aging issues. 

An Informal Glimpse Into Age Perceptions

When does old age start? Again, it depends on who you ask. 

Carolyn Tazelaar, a 37 year-old mother who is working on her master’s degree in social work, said that having a child shifted her point of view about when old age starts, which she now pegs around 80. “There’s a lot of life between 30 and 70, and people are having babies in their 40s,” she said, also pointing to the pressure that women feel about age (a factor that specifically caused women in Wettstein’s study to psychologically distance themselves from old age.). “People at my internship literally tell me that I am old. And they’re 25,” Tazelaar said, laughing.

The idea of “young old” people and “old” people is also often brought into these conversations. “I think of old age as ‘old’ and ‘older,’” said Claudia Metcalf, a 54-year-old vice president of marketing and wellness at a consumer product company in Marlborough, MA. “For me, it’s all about the degree to which someone remains active and mentally positive, continues to do things, and contributes to the world.”

Seegert said that now that she is 63, she’s finding that old age isn’t a number but is much more individualized. “There are 80-year-olds that don’t seem old to the untrained eye. And there are 60-year-olds who seem much older than their biological years might indicate,” she said.

Lovisa Williams, a 49-year-old senior digital strategist and policy officer for the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC, said things have definitely changed since she was a kid, a time when she would have said that 65 is the definitive cutoff between middle and old age. That perspective has since changed. “I think that it starts when you are to a point where mentally or physically, you start not to be able to function in the same way that you have in the past; it varies from person to person,” she said.

Indeed, Wettstein noted that his study revealed that adults with greater numbers of chronic disease and poorer self-related health perceived old age to begin earlier than healthier people. 

Take Philadelphia-based copywriter Steve Rickards, for example. About to turn 71, Rickards said that his perception of when old age changed when he scaled back his work from 5 to 3 days a week. “I started to feel old at 70 when I stopped working full-time; that change of routine really kind of gummed up my gears mentally. Physically, I can’t do as much physical exercise as I used to,” he said. (Rickards also has a rare cancer affecting his vocal cords, which has definitely influenced his point of view about aging.)

Changing Times and Attitudes

The global world is aging, and old age perceptions are now influenced by the fact that people are living and working longer, engaging more frequently in virtual versus face-to-face interactions, and are bombarded with societal attitudes that value youth and youthful appearances. 

Still, aging is not a choice; it is an inevitability. “Just knowing that it is coming and preparing yourself for it is important,” said Schuster. “Let me make sure that I start taking care of myself when I’m young so that I increase the odds of aging well while at the same time appreciating every stage of my life until then.” 


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