Middle Age and Older Adults Perceive “Old Age” Begins Later Than a Decade Ago

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A new study found the perceived onset of old age rose nearly 3 years from 1911 to 1953.

“At what age would you describe someone as old?”

Investigators of a new study, led by Markus Wettstein, PhD, from the department of psychology at Humboldt University of Berlin, posed this question to participants, hoping to gauge how the perception of “old age” has changed over the years with the increase in life expectancy. A decade ago, middle-aged and older adults would have said 5 years younger than middle-aged and older adults do today, a new study found.

Empirical studies found older adults today perform better on cognitive tests, reported greater well-being, greater internal control beliefs, fewer perceived constraints, and are more socially embedded than older adults 20 years ago. Older adults nowadays tend to feel younger than older adults a decade before, and subjective age plays a factor in the perception of old age.

If a 60-year-old feels like a 40-year-old, they might perceive 60 years old as “not old,” but the same might not be the case if a 60-year-old feels 65 years old. Better self-rated health is linked to a later perceived onset of old age.

Wettstein and colleagues wanted to better understand how later-born cohorts perceive the onset of old age. Limited data existed on this topic. They also wanted to assess how specific factors impacted the perception of old age including chronological age, subjective age, gender, West vs East Germany, education, loneliness, number of chronic diseases, and self-related health.

“Life expectancy has increased, which might contribute to a later perceived onset of old age,” Wettstein said in a press release. “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.”

The team leveraged data from a German Ageing Survey, which had a comprehensive cohort-sequential, nationwide study sample of ≥ 14,000 individuals who were born from 1911 – 1974 (aged 40 – 85 years; mean age: 61.20 years) and who had 8 longitudinal observations throughout 25 years. Samples were from 1996, 2002, 2008, and 2014 and were assessed or reassessed in 1996, 2002, 2008, 2011, 2014, 2017, summer 2020, and winter 2020/21. Participants were community-dwelling and resided in Germany.

The final analysis included 34,490 observations of the perceived onset of old age among 14,056 individuals. Participants were broken into 3 historical times: 1911 – 1935 (n = 3600), 1936 – 1951 (n = 6256), and 1952 – 1974 (n = 4227). The mean chronological age at baseline was 58.1 years, an average of 13% younger than their chronological age.

Investigators found the mean perceived onset of old age was approximately 73 years. Older chronological age was linked to a later perceived onset of old age. People perceived the onset of old age to begin earlier if they were lonely, in worse health, or had an older subjective age.

The study showed participants born in 1911 who were 65 years old viewed old age as starting at 71 years, but participants born in 1956 who were 65 years old perceived old age to start at age 74.

The analysis demonstrated women had a subjective onset of old age that was, on average, 2.4 years later than men. Even when adjusted for gender, the team saw the perceived onset of old age was older for later-born cohorts (P < .001).

Furthermore, individuals’ perceptions of old age-adjusted as they got older. A model found the individual’s perceived onset of old age at age 64 years increased by roughly 2 years over 10 years (P < .001).

The model revealed for every 10-year difference in chronological age, the perceived onset of old age was about 2 years greater. For instance, the estimated perceived onset of old age for a 64-year-old was 74.7 years, compared to a perceived onset of old age at 76.8 years for a 74-year-old.

A limitation the team highlighted was how nursing home residents and very old adults were underrepresented despite the participants being as old as 85 years.

Despite the perceived onset of old age becoming later throughout the years, the research suggests the trend has been slowing in recent years.

“The trend toward postponing old age is not linear and might not necessarily continue in the future,” Wettstein said.


  1. Wettstein M, Park R, Kornadt AE, Wurm S, Ram N, Gerstorf D. Postponing old age: Evidence for historical change toward a later perceived onset of old age. Psychol Aging. Published online April 22, 2024. doi:10.1037/pag0000812
  2. People think 'old age' starts later than it used to, study finds. EurekAlert! April 22, 2024. Accessed April 22, 2024.