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Old Age Keeps Getting Older

Various Factors Influence Perceptions

Old Age Keeps Getting Older

By Sean Zucker –

In December 2022, a 92-year-old grandmother named Mathea Allansmith became the oldest woman in the world to ever complete a marathon. Per the Guinness World Records, she finished the race in under 11 hours and still regularly runs six times a week. What makes the feat more remarkable is the fact that Allansmith didn’t even pick up the sport until her mid-forties.

Allansmith’s story is a stark reminder that age is merely a number and its capacity to debilitate someone is based largely on how they perceive it. Now, new research has found that this perception of old age is finally changing.

Dr. Markus Wettstein, a researcher with Berlin’s Humboldt University, just announced study results that showed how perceptions of old age have changed over the last quarter century. In effect, the point that people perceive “old age” is getting pushed back further and further.

Along with teams from three other universities, including Stanford University, Wettstein examined data from over 14,000 people drawn from the German Ageing Survey, a longitudinal study that included volunteers living in Germany born between 1911 and 1974. Through a series of survey questions delivered eight times between 1996 and 2021, participants handled a wide range of questions, including the most significant: “At what age would you describe someone as old?”

The results showed that the earlier someone was born, the younger they deemed someone to be old. Essentially, when compared with the earliest-born participants, later-born participants reported a later perceived onset of old age. For example, individuals born in 1911 identified the start of old age at 71 years old when they themselves reached 65 years. Conversely, those born in 1956, at the same age of 65, indicated that old age commences around age 74.

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,” Wettstein reported in a related statement.

Despite these results, the research team warned a massive cultural shift in age perception may not be underway. In fact, the team noted that this trend toward a later perceived onset of old age has slowed down in recent years. “The trend toward postponing old age is not linear and might not necessarily continue in the future,” Wettstein added.

The study also examined how participants’ perceptions evolved as they aged. Perhaps not surprisingly, as individuals grew older, their perception of when old age began was steadily postponed. At 64 years old, the typical participant indicated that old age began at 74.7 years. By age 74, this perception had shifted to 76.8 years. On average, the perceived initiation of old age advanced approximately one year for every four to five years of actual aging.

Additionally, the researchers investigated how individual attributes, like gender and health status, influenced variations in their perception of when old age begins. Their work revealed that, on average, women identified the onset of old age as occurring two years later than men did. This disparity had widened over time.

Beyond this, individuals who reported higher levels of loneliness, worse health and a stronger sense of feeling older tended to perceive old age as commencing earlier compared to those who reported lower levels of loneliness, better health and a more youthful demeanor.

“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 concluded.





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