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Public perception of ‘old age’ has shifted to later in life

In a new study, researchers have explored how modern adults perceive the onset of old age compared to previous generations. The experts found that, as increases and retirement ages are pushed back, the public perception of when old age begins is shifting to later in life. 

The study was led by an international team of researchers including psychologist Markus Wettstein from in Berlin, and his colleagues from , the , and the .

Notable shift in the perceived start of old age 

The experts analyzed responses from 14,056 participants in the . This longitudinal study spans over 25 years and includes German residents born between 1911 and 1974, assessing their views on aging.

The survey consistently asked participants the age at which they considered someone to be old. Findings indicate a notable shift: participants born earlier in the 20th century identified the start of old age at younger ages than those born later. For instance, participants born in 1911 believed old age started at 71 when they were 65 years old, whereas those born in 1956 placed the threshold at 74.

However, the scientists identified a slowdown in this trend of pushing back the perceived start of old age in recent decades, suggesting that this shift might not continue indefinitely. “The trend toward postponing old age is not linear and might not necessarily continue in the future,” Wettstein explained.

Aging changes the perspective 

Further analysis showed that as individuals age, they tend to view old age as beginning later in life. For example, at age 64, participants on average believed old age started at 74.7, but by age 74, they adjusted this belief to 76.8. This shift roughly translates to a one-year increase in the perceived start of old age for every four to five years of actual aging.

and health also play significant roles in how early individuals perceive the onset of old age. The study found that women, on average, believe it starts about two years later than men do, a gap that has widened over time. Moreover, individuals who reported feeling lonelier, being in poorer health, or feeling older themselves tended to say old age starts earlier.

What drives the trend of postponing old age?

These findings are critical for understanding how individuals plan for their aging and how society views older adults. “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,” Wettstein said.

The experts call for further research to determine if this trend will persist and to expand the scope of inquiry to more diverse and non-Western populations, to better understand global perceptions of aging.

Interesting facts about old age

Old age can be a period of growth, adaptation, and continued contribution to society, not merely a time of decline. Here are some interesting facts:

Increased life expectancy

Globally, life expectancy has significantly increased over the past century. Advances in healthcare, nutrition, and living conditions have played a major role in extending the average .

Healthier senior years

Many older adults today are healthier than in the past. Improved medical treatments for chronic diseases like heart disease and arthritis mean many seniors can maintain a better quality of life for longer.

Brain plasticity

Contrary to the belief that the brain’s decline unavoidably with age, research shows that the brain maintains plasticity into older adulthood, meaning it can continue to form new neural connections and adapt.

Population shifts

The demographic of is increasing faster than other age groups. By 2050, the number of people aged 60 years and older will more than double. This shift is challenging societies to adapt infrastructures and policies to meet the needs of an aging population.

Economic impact

Older adults contribute significantly to the economy, often referred to as the “silver economy.” This includes not just their spending power but also their contributions to the workforce and volunteer sectors.

Wisdom and emotions

Older adults often experience what is known as the “positivity effect,” a tendency to remember positive experiences over negative ones. Studies suggest that this might be an adaptive mechanism to enhance overall well-being.

Cultural differences

Attitudes towards aging vary significantly by culture. In some cultures, older adults are revered and considered wise, whereas, in others, youth is valued more.

The study is published in the journal .


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