Here's when people think 'old age' begins, according to study

FILE - Senior citizens dance in a file image dated Feb. 22, 2005, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

What age is considered "old?" The answer appears to be skewing later as people live longer, retire later, and have better physical and mental health later in life. 

A study, published on April 22 by the American Psychological Association, found that people asked this question at age 64 said that "old age" starts at age 75. 

In addition, the older people were asked this question, the later their answers were.

The study examined data from over 14,000 participants of the "German Ageing Survey," which included people living in Germany born between 1911 and 1974. The participants responded to survey questions up to eight times over 25 years (1996–2021), when they were between 40 and 100 years old. 

"Life expectancy has increased, which might contribute to a later perceived onset of old age," study author Markus Wettstein, PhD, of Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, said in a statement.

"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 added.

As people age, their perceptions of ‘old age’ change

Wettstein, along with colleagues at Stanford University, the University of Luxembourg and the University of Greifswald, looked at how individual participants’ perceptions of old age changed as they got older. 

Among the many questions survey participants answered was, "At what age would you describe someone as old?"

The team found that as people aged, their perception of when old age begins was pushed later.

At age 64, the average participant said old age started at 74.7. At age 74, they said old age started at 76.8. 

On average, the age people thought "old age" began increased by about one year for every four to five years of actual aging, according to the study authors. 

The team also examined how individual characteristics like gender and health contributed to how people answered the question about old age.

The study found that women said that old age started two years later than men, on average. 

It also found that people who reported being more lonely, in worse health, and feeling older, on average, said old age began earlier than those who were less lonely, in better health, and felt younger.

Wettstein said the results may have implications for when, and how, people prepare for their own aging – as well as how people think about older adults in general.

"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.

This story was reported from Cincinnati.