How Old Are You?

Redefining Old Age

Remember when you were a kid and someone asked you that question?  “I’m 12 and a half,” we’d reply, eager to claim every one of our days. We couldn’t wait to be grown up when we believed we could do anything we wanted. Now if we’re asked our age (and we choose to respond) our answers are quite different.

“Over 21”

“75 years young.”

“60 something”

“Old enough to know better”

“Older than dirt”

In our society we’ve established the point when children become teens and when teens become adults. We’ve even got a reasonable consensus on the beginning of middle age but after that things get fuzzy. When does “old age” actually begin? Some say old age isn’t a number; it’s a state of mind. Is it something we can peg?

In 2009, the folks at Pew Research Center decided to explore this question. Researchers asked more than 3,000 adults their opinions on this subject and the answers they got were all over the place depending on who they asked. Here’s what they learned:

  • People under 30 said old age begins at 60
  • People between 30 and 49 said old age starts at 72
  • People 65 and older said old age begins at 74

Even more interesting is that the vast majority (65%) of the people in the over 74 group said they didn’t feel old. My friend, Sally and I still chuckle over a comment her beloved grandmother made shortly after her 90th birthday. She looked at Sally and mused, “I’m 90. Does that seem old to you?”

Another study conducted a few years later in the U.K resulted in another surprising finding. The study surveyed 2,000 people over 40.  93% believed age is a state of mind and 82% said they felt younger than their actual age by an average of 11 years. Most of them defined old age as beginning at 80.

These two studies show quite a shift in perception of when old age begins and the numbers seem to be nudging upward. What changed in such a short time?

We already know that medical breakthroughs coupled with healthier, more active lifestyles play a big part as does continued involvement in the workforce either by choice or necessity. But another reason is the growing number of older people in the spotlight who are still going strong. They are our new role models for aging—living proof that frailty is not inevitable.  Some examples:

Screen and stage:

  • Michael Caine (82)
  • Maggie Smith (81)
  • Clint Eastwood (85)
  • Judy Dench (81)
  • Sean Connery (85)
  • Harrison Ford (73)
  • Raquel Welch (75)
  • Helen Mirren (70)

Singers:

  • Mick Jagger (72) (who would ever have believed that back in the 60s?)
  • Aretha Franklin (73) (she can still belt ‘em out)
  • Willie Nelson (82) who has written more than 2,500 songs.

Our nation is being led by statesmen like John McCain (79) and Joe Biden (73). The list could go on and on. Michelle Barnhart, a researcher at Oregon State University has concluded that when people in their 80’s or 90’s display characteristics associated with younger people they are treated like younger people.

What has changed is these people aged without getting  old.

I do realize, of course, that not all older people enjoy a high quality of life. Those who suffer from serious health conditions, who struggle to pay their bills or who have lost their independence often suffer loneliness and depression. But here’s some good news: The number of younger adults who expect to encounter these problems is much higher than the number of older adults who actually experience them.

Better news: Even in the face of serious challenges, only 1% of the oldest people interviewed in the Pew Study said their lives had turned out worse than they expected.

Bottom line:

  • Exercise
  • Pay attention to what you eat
  • Stay engaged with the world.
  • Try new things.
  •  Challenge your mind
  • Manage stress

Food for thought:

How old are you?

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