The concept of old age is subjective and constantly changing. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, adults of middle and advanced age believe that old age begins later now than their peers did decades ago. Even later than they themselves said then. Being old is not what it used to be.

The study reflects biological changes, but also suggests a lot about the way we relate to aging. “There is a surprisingly strong historical trend towards a postponement or later subjective onset of old age,” explains Markus Wettstein, a psychologist at the University of Humboldt in Berlin and lead author of the study. “And we don’t fully understand why yet.”

In recent years, life expectancy and quality of life have increased. This has been accompanied by changes in society: the stages of life have been postponed, starting with emancipation, marriage or motherhood. And ending in many countries with retirement, the official gateway to the third age. The diffuse concept of old age may have moved away a few years due to these changes, the researchers suggest. Or, in an ageist society, no one wants to perceive themselves as old.

But what exactly does it mean to be old? At what age is one objectively old? The respondents answered the question between one and eight times over a period of 25 years. They were changing their answer as they got older, pushing the start of old age further and further away. In the end, the most mentioned ages were 70 and 71 years. Wettstein does not feel able to endorse those numbers. “It’s hard to define because we always see in our research how tremendously heterogeneous the group of older adults is,” he explains in an exchange of messages.

In general, women tend to place old age further away than men. This is something that has been seen before and that this study confirms, with a difference of 2.4 years between the two. “They tend to live longer than them, which could explain this difference in the perception of the onset of old age,” says the expert. The study, which used data from 14,000 German citizens, analyzed how terms such as biological age, chronological age and subjective age have changed from 1988 to more recent dates. Then, life expectancy in Spain was 76.86 years. In 2021, and after a slight dip after the pandemic, it rose to 83.2. “If life expectancy is longer, the perception of the onset of old age could be postponed to some extent,” Wettstein reflects. “Someone who is 60 years old could be considered old in the past, but today they can expect to live 20 years or more.”

Bruno Arpino, a sociologist at the University of Florence specializing in aging, goes further and speaks of a prospective age. “Normally, age is measured by looking back, to the moment one was born. A totally different perspective, which some researchers propose, is to look to the future, that is, to how many years a person can expect to live.” In this context, being older does not only depend on when you are born, but also on where. The life expectancy of the country will determine what we understand by old.

Healthy older people are still old people

Old age is not a number, but a subjective concept that changes depending on society. “A study in European countries found large differences between countries, of up to 10 years,” says Wettstein, who explains these changes based on “the participation of older people in the labor market, the proportion of older adults within a country or the cultural perception of old age and older adults.”

The study points out that “the individual’s subjective age can be an important factor” when talking about old age. Subjective age is what the mirror tells us, not our ID card. How old we feel versus how old we really are. And in general, adults are quite lenient when it comes to adding years to their age. According to a 2006 study, adults over 40 perceive themselves, on average, 20% younger than they actually are. The difference between chronological age and subjective age, the one we add to ourselves, begins to slowly but inexorably widen at age 25 and continues to increase ever since. As the authors of a study on ageism at the University of Virginia say, “subjective aging seems to happen on Mars, where an Earth decade is equivalent to 5.3 Martian years.”

This is what older people say about what it means to be old, but what does science say? Is there any support for this subjective and self-serving perception? The short answer is yes. But Wettstein prefers to give the long answer: “Thanks to medical advances, older adults are somewhat healthier than they were 10 or 20 years ago, and that could explain why they also believe that old age starts later,” he says. So this phenomenon is not just psychological, there is a real basis for it.

A study conducted in Finland and published in 2021 put figures to this idea. Men and women between the ages of 75 and 80 were subjected to a battery of physical and cognitive tests. They saved these results and 28 years later, they repeated the same tests on another group of men and women of that age. The current elderly improved their previous marks in all areas. They were able to walk 20 to 40 centimeters per second faster, were able to grip with 5% to 25% more force and could raise their leg 20% to 47% more than the group that took those tests 28 years earlier. In addition, they demonstrated at least 14% more lung capacity, better verbal fluency, reasoning and working memory.

The present study pushes old age away and its authors point out that it is a solid trend. But not all gerontologists agree. “We don’t have reliable data from past times,” Arpino concedes. However, interesting information can be obtained from the texts of poets, writers and historians. “For example, the ancient Greek poet Mimnermo wrote: ‘At sixty, far from disease and painful anguish, the fate of death traps me.’ Nowadays, the age at which a person begins to be defined as old is around 60 or 65 years. “This is a convenient age used even by international organizations such as the United Nations,” says Arpino. So things haven’t changed that much. Different studies may talk about healthier and stronger older people, but that doesn’t mean they stop being old. 60 is the new 50, but only for people in their 60s. And that says more about the stigmas associated with old age than about when we get there. “Throughout history, the perception of how we age has changed more than when we age,” concludes Arpino.