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April 29, 2024
by Elizabeth Pratt

People Believe Old Age Starts Later Than Previously Thought

April 29, 2024 21:00 by Elizabeth Pratt  [About the Author]

Middle aged and older adults believe that older age starts later than their peers believed decades ago.

Research published in the journal Psychology and Aging found compared with people born earlier, those born later have a perceived later onset of old age.

“We found that middle-aged and older adults nowadays believe that old age starts later then did middle-aged and older adults in the past. This could be due to the fact that the life expectancy has increased, so that the entire lifespan is longer today. But it might also reflect a negative attitude toward old age – people “postpone” old age as they do not want to enter this rather undesirable life phase. A study in the US indeed found that age stereotypes have become more negative over historical time (across 200 years),” Markus Wettstein, PhD, author of the study and researcher at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany told Theravive.

As part of the study, researchers from Stanford University, the University of Luxembourg, the University of Greifswald and Humboldt University looked at data from more than 14 thousand people in the German Ageing Survey. The participants in the survery were born between 1911 and 1974.

The survey period ran from 1996 to 2021 and the participants responded to survey question up to eight times over the span of the survey period. The participants were between 40 and 100 years of age when they responded to the survey.

Questions asked included asking participants at what age would they consider someone to be old.

“Investigating the question when old age begins for an individual might also have implications for how these individuals think about their own aging and about older people in general and when they start to prepare for their own aging,” Wettstein said. 

“Our research team is generally interested in how aging processes in general have changed across historical time. We know that life expectancy has considerably increased in the past decades, and consequently more and more individuals reach an old or even very old age. There is also medical progress and increasing technology use and exposure. These and other factors may not only affect the circumstances under which people get older, but also the way they think about aging, about older adults and when old age begins.”

They found that when participants from the survey who were born in 1911 were aged 65, they perceived the onset of old age to be 71. 

But when those born in 1956 were 65, they reported that old age begins at 74.

"When old age begins seems to shift in our perceptions across historical time. When a person thinks that old age begins is related to various factors. For instance, for women old age begins later than for men, which could to some extent be due to the fact that women live longer than men but may also be due to the fact that age stereotypes about older women are often times more negative than those about older men – so women might have a stronger desire than men to “postpone” old age a bit more,” Wettstein said.

“We also found that individuals who feel lonelier and who feel older and who report more chronic diseases and poorer health tend to set the beginning of old age earlier than individuals who are healthier, feel less lonely and feel younger. We also see that the older individuals are, the later they set the onset of old age, and when individuals get older, they increase the perceived onset of old age by about 1 year every 4-5 years.”

The researchers say their findings have important implications for how and when people may prepare for their own aging, as well as how people regard the older population.

“There is comprehensive evidence from more than 100 studies on the role of our perceptions of aging for health and longevity. Feeling younger and having a more favorable attitude toward ones own aging is related with better health and longer lives. There also seems to be a certain health relevance of perceived onset of old age, as one study found that individuals who set the beginning of old age later exhibit a better health some years later than those who believe that old age starts earlier,” Wettstein said.

About the Author

Elizabeth Pratt

Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald,, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.

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