“Age is only a number” But at what age does a person stop getting older and actually become old? When does old age begin?
The answer to the above question is very complicated and it differs depending on who you ask, their culture, context, age and sex. This is for instance, illustrated even in a national context; even though life expectancy is only seven years less in China than in France, the Chinese believe that old age typically begins at age 50, while the French say it begins at 71.
Global organisations such as the United Nations has set a chronological age of 60 as the start of old age, while the World Health Organization sets 50 as the beginning of old age – even they cannot decide when old age begins!
Why does it matter?
Definitions of old age matter because they determine the entitlements provided by governments and others to individuals in older age. The age of 60 or 65, roughly equivalent to retirement ages in most developed countries, is said to be the beginning of old age. Here in New Zealand we have adopted the age of 65 to define old age as this is when people can receive their Superannuation. In many parts of the developing world however, chronological time has little or no importance in the meaning of old age.
There are no inevitable biological markers that link to chronological age. In daily life, we often define old age not by years but by the changing roles we occupy in our families and societies and our ability to actively engage in society. As life expectancy increases globally and older people as a whole are fitter, better educated, and healthier than the previous generation, the idea of a mass of ‘older people’ becomes not only irrelevant but harmful if it provokes uniform responses. It is important to look at the individual and refrain from simplifying and over-generalizing older people. Age is not a proxy for health, cognitive function, or disability. Just because someone may look “old” does not that they may feel old. Aging is multidimensional and individual specific. Two people of the same age in the same society could have very different profiles that could even stem from, for example, their education level.
When do people think old age starts?
When researchers at the Pew Research Center put this old age question and many others to nearly 3,000 adults, ranging in age from 18 to well over 65, the answers were revealing. Like many other questions in life, the definition of old age depends on who you ask.
As explained in Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality, the report based on the Pew study, if you average all of the responses together the average answer is clear: Old age begins at 68.
It’s no surprise that the older people get, the longer they think it takes for a person to reach old age:
- On average, adults between the ages of 30 and 49 think old age begins at 69.
- People who are currently 50-64 believe old age starts at 72.
- Responders who are 65 and older say old age begins at 74.
Responses to the question, “When does old age begin?” vary by sex as well as age, with women taking the more generous view. On average, women say old age begins at age 70, according to the Pew study. Men, on average, say that old age begins at 66.
The study also shows that only one thing is certain when it comes to old age: The majority of people agree that none of this applies to them.
Among the old age survey respondents who were 65-74, only 21 percent said they feel old. Even among those who are 75 and older—an age that many of those surveyed would call “old”—just 35 percent said they feel old.
Maybe it’s true, as the old saying goes, that you’re only as old as you feel.