How Old is Old?

Today I have seen lots of headlines claiming a British research study has determined that old age starts at precisely 59 years, two months and two weeks.  Hmmm

I know that my definition of old has constantly changed as I have gotten older. As a family physician “elderly” patients often tell me their mind feels young, it is the body that feels old.

I also know that my perception of the passage of time has speeded up as I have aged. When I was five, a one year time period would have represented 20% of my life. When I am 100,  a one time period will only represent 1% of my life. It sure seems to me that time and age are all relative.

Looking a little deeper in the headlines, the research commissioned by Britain’s Department for Work and Pensions involved interviewing 2,162 Britons.  So much for this study being a full research project.

59 years, two months and two weeks is merely the average perception of when old age begins, according to the survey which asked the question of a certain group people from age 16 upwards. The survey also showed perceptions of age varied widely according to how old the respondents were, as well as their gender, and whether they were working or not.  Survey a different age range of people, and you will get a different result.

In 2009, the Pew Research Center  surveyed about 3,000 adults 18 and older in the USA. On average, survey respondents said old age begins at 68. But few people over 65 agreed; they said old age begins at 75. Respondents under 30 said 60 marks the beginning of old age. Perhaps old age is just a bit older than the respondent.

Being “old” is a shifting and fuzzy definition. We should be cautious – as individuals or as a society – in imposing a uniform definition of old age on ourselves or others.

So when does old age start?  As a physician I start thinking of someone being older once they are 60, primarily because health screening and intervention guidelines begin to get more complex.  I definitely think of someone as being older when they are covered by Medicare.

That being said, old age is likely best defined not as a physical age but as a functional age. I like to think of old age as that time in life when the infirmities of life and/or health cause a progressive decline in physical activity. Using that definition someone can be 50 and old, or 70 and not yet old.

May life treat you well and allow you to be physically active much longer than average for your age.

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