Perception of What’s ‘Old’ Shifts as Life Expectancy Increases

A recent study published by the American Psychological Association has found that middle-aged and older adults now believe old age begins later in life compared to their peers’ perceptions decades ago. The study, which analyzed data from the German Ageing Survey, suggests that increased life expectancy and improved health may contribute to this shift in perception.

Later Generations Push Back the Onset of Old Age

Markus Wettstein, PhD, of Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, and the study’s lead author, explained, “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.”

The study, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, examined survey responses from 14,056 participants born between 1911 and 1974. Participants were asked, “At what age would you describe someone as old?” The researchers found that later-born participants reported a later perceived onset of old age compared to earlier-born participants.

Trend Toward Postponing Old Age Slows in Recent Years

Despite the overall trend of pushing back the perceived onset of old age, the study also revealed that this trend has slowed in the past two decades. “The trend toward postponing old age is not linear and might not necessarily continue in the future,” Wettstein cautioned.

Individual Factors Influence Perceptions of Aging

The study also found that individual characteristics, such as gender and health status, contributed to differences in the perceived onset of old age. Women, on average, reported that old age started two years later than men, and this gender gap has increased over time. Additionally, people who reported being more lonely, in worse health, and feeling older said old age began earlier compared to those who were less lonely, in better health, and felt younger.

The findings raise questions about how perceptions of aging may influence individuals’ preparations for their own aging process and societal views of older adults. Wettstein noted, “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.”

The researchers call for further studies to examine the trend in more diverse populations and non-Western countries to better understand how perceptions of aging vary across cultures.

Postponing Old Age: Evidence for Historical Change Toward a Later Perceived Onset of Old Age,” by Markus Wettstein, PhD, and Denis Gerstorf, PhD, Humboldt University of Berlin; Rinseo Park, PhD, and Nilan Ram, PhD, Stanford University; Anna E. Kornadt, PhD, University of Luxembourg; Susanne Wurm, PhD, University Medicine Greifswald. Psychology and Aging, published online April 22, 2024.

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