Sunday, 05 May 2024 04:46

Here’s when people think old age begins — and why experts think it’s starting later

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New research suggests that 74 is the new 71. Our perception of when “old age” begins is shifting, with most people believing this phase of life begins later than they used to, according to a new study published in the journal Psychology and Aging. While the study didn’t look at why this shift has occurred, experts say it makes sense — and is probably a good thing; humans on average are living longer than ever, and examples of people living full lives well beyond retirement age abound. Experts on aging — some of whom are in their 70s and 80s themselves — aren’t surprised, and say it’s part of a promising shift away from negative stereotypes about what getting older means.

Here’s what to know.

What does the study say?

Researchers at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, asked more than 14,000 German adults when old age begins. They posed the question eight times over the 25-year period between 1911 and 1974, quizzing participants when they were anywhere from 40 to 100 years old.

At age 65, those born in 1911 said, on average, that old age begins at age 71. But, when people born in 1956 reached the same age, they said that someone was “old” at age 74, on average.

It wasn’t just a generational difference. People also pushed back their old-age number as they themselves aged. So, at age 64, people said that old age starts at 74.4, on average. But by the time those same people reached age 74, they believed they still weren’t yet old, and said old age begins at age 76.8.

Women also tended to say that old age started later than men believed and, the older people got, the wider that gender gap grew. People who were in better health and felt younger and less lonely tended to be more optimistic, saying old age begins later in life.

However, this trend seems to be slowing in recent years, the study authors noted. “That the trend is decelerated could be due to the fact that other trends — the increase in life expectancy or medical progress — are also not necessarily strictly linear,” lead author of the study, Markus Wettstein, psychology professor at Humboldt University, tells Yahoo Life.

Why we’re thinking differently about when old age starts

While the study didn't focus on why people's definition of old age changes over time, the researchers have some theories. “We know that life expectancy has increased, so the lifespan is more extended nowadays,” Wettstein tells Yahoo Life. “We also know that at least with regard to some health domains, older adults are healthier nowadays than older people were in the past. So we wanted to know, do middle-aged and older adults today set the beginning of old age later than the generations before them? This seems to be the case.”

In the U.S., the average life expectancy is now 77.5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest data (In Germany, where the study was conducted, it’s 78.3 for men and 83.2 for women). Americans can now expect to live 5.5 years longer than they could 50 years ago, in 1974.

Wettstein adds that older adults now have a better sense of wellbeing and remain healthier for longer (though, by some measures, we’re not necessarily living healthier lives). “As long as older adults are healthy, they might have the impression that old age lies still ahead of them,” he says.

“Now, in most people’s daily lives, they know somebody who is 100,” Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University who researches mindset and aging, tells Yahoo Life. In the past, “you didn’t know anybody who lived to 100 — they were there, but few and far between — so you’d see yourself as old at, it used to be 50, then 60, then 70, then 80,” and so on, she says.

The perception that you can live a long life is magnified by the greater cultural visibility of today's older people, points out Langer. “The culture tells us, on occasion, how we’re supposed to be,” she says, including when to think of ourselves as “old.” But “there are always people who are willing to ignore that and they become role models for everyone else, like Jane Fonda: In the 1960s, she was doing all this exercise and then everybody started doing exercise, and it’s become the norm.”

Why redefining old age is a good thing

Changing perceptions of what constitutes “old age” is good news, but not surprising, experts say. “I think it’s positive,” says Katharine Esty, social psychologist and author of the book, Eightysomethings, tells Yahoo Life. She adds that how and when people think about “old age” is powerful. “People say ‘I’m older, I’m aging,’ they’ll use that phrasing, but not ‘I’m old,’” Esty says. “If you have a positive attitude toward aging, you’re going to live that 7.5 years longer,” she sas, referencing previous research that found that people who have a positive outlook toward aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than those who don’t.

It’s not clear from the new study whether the participants pushed back their definition of “old age” because they felt optimistic that they would live longer, or out of fear of becoming old themselves. But both Langer and Esty say embracing aging enthusiastically is crucial to living well for longer, no matter how many more years you get.

“Our whole American society doesn’t handle old age well — we need a redo, where we all learn what it is really like to be older,” says Esty, who is 89. “People are mistaken, they dread it and think they know for sure how it will be and spend so much energy trying not to look old.”

She compares aging to the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is mended with gold- or silver-dusted lacquer. The result is often regarded as more beautiful than the original, pristine piece. “We’re missing the beauty in aging,” says Esty. “In some ways, we, with our repaired hips and ankles and knees and hearing aids and our glasses, we’re more beautiful.”

Tips for aging well from aging experts

Langer’s key to aging well is not only believing that she can live a long and active life, but making a mindful effort to do so (she wrote a book on the very subject). She’s not referring to meditation and anxiety-relieving skills, but to a way of keeping your mind active. “When you think you’re everything is over, you withdraw from the world,” Langer says her 40 years of research has shown. “But if instead you try to add more life to your years and make the moments matter most mindfully, that’s going to matter; neurons are firing and that’s literally and figuratively enlivening.”

She stays mindful by continuing to teach, speak and write, and playing tennis in her free time. Esty says learning how to properly mourn losses, but not to dread them, or her own age, has helped her age well, as has writing her book, in which she interviewed more than 100 people in their 80s. “The people were so inspiring, and having the project inspired me,” she says. “I think, to age well, you need to have a purpose, that in some way you’re contributing to the world.”

Recognizing that purpose is helpful not only to older people, but to all of us, says Nilam Ram, co-author of the new study and Stanford University professor of psychology. “There is a utility for society to figure out how to leverage the expertise that our elders have,” he says. “Reducing the negative stereotypes around aging would be part of that process, to say, ‘Oh look, there’s this amazing community out there, how is it that they can keep contributing to society in ways that are fruitful for everyone?”


Yahoo Life

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