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Our perceptions of age change substantially as we grow older, study finds

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Lead author William Chopik: “There’s… research showing that older adulthood can be quite enriching, with some studies showing that older adults are even happier than younger adults.”

How old do you feel? Younger than your age? Older? Also, how many birthdays must pass before someone enters “old age”?  And at what age do you hope to live to?

Your answer to those questions is likely to depend on your age right now, according to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.  After querying more than half a million Americans about aging, the study’s authors found that our perceptions of age change substantially as we become older.

In a nutshell: The older we are, the younger we feel. And the age at which we believe people become “old” goes up with each passing year — jumping dramatically once we pass the age of 40.

“Our perceptions of aging aren’t static — they change as we change ourselves,” said William Chopik, the study’s lead author and a psychologist at Michigan State University, in a released statement. “What you consider to be old changes as you become old yourself.”

“I find it interesting,” he added, “that there’s a ton of people who have skewed perceptions about aging — mostly young adults.”

Indeed, almost 30,000 people in the study — mostly young people — thought middle age began at age 30.

Yes, yes, this may sound like a “duh” study. To most people — certainly those past, say, age 50 — its findings will not be all that surprising. Still, out views of aging influence what we — as individuals and as a society — expect of older people, as well as how we behave toward them. So in that respect, this type of research is important. 

Study details

The study involved 502,548 internet respondents, making it the largest one to date to investigate age perceptions, say its authors. The participants ranged in age from 10 to 89, and almost 70 percent were women. Most were from the United States. 

The researchers randomly divided the participants into two groups. One group was asked four questions about their perceptions of aging: “If you could choose, what age would you be? “How old do you feel?” “To what age do you hope to live?” “On average, how old do other people think you are?” 

The other group was asked to give the age at which four developmental life-transitions occur: childhood to young adulthood, young adulthood to adulthood, adulthood to middle age, and middle age to older adulthood.

The study found that “older adults perceived themselves as older, but these perceptions were increasingly younger than their current age,” Chopik and his colleagues write. “We also found that older adults placed the age at which developmental transitions occurred later in the life course.”

That was particularly true for the transition from middle age into older adulthood.

One of the more interesting findings in the study had to do with how long people said they wanted to live. Children and young adults tended to say, on average, that they wanted to live into their early 90s. People in their 30s and 40s, however, cited a slightly lower ideal lifespan: 88. The age began to rise again once people passed their 50th birthday. Those in their 80s said, on average, that they hoped to live to 93.

A defensive reaction

This study comes with some important caveats. Most notably, its participants were asked about their perceptions of age once, at a specific time in their lives. If the participants had been asked the question repeatedly over many decades, factors other than age might have emerged as the reasons behind the differences in age perceptions observed in the study.

Still, other research has made similar observations. Nor is it particularly surprising (particularly to older people) that perceptions of age change as people become older themselves. People who are middle-aged (or older) may like to think that “50 is the new 30” or “60 is the new 40,” but, as this study suggests, that may only be because it’s uncomfortable for most people to think of themselves as getting old.

“As people age, they become increasingly closer to identifying with a stigmatized group (i.e., older adults),” write Chopik and his colleagues. “As a result people engage in efforts to psychologically distance themselves from older adults.”

“One way in which people do this is to give younger perceptions of aging — reporting that they would choose to be younger, that they feel younger, and that people think they are younger than their current age. Older participants gave older desired lifetimes compared to younger adults, which is consistent with individual’s motivations toward self-preservation and defensive reactions toward mortality reminders.”

“I think the main take-away [from the study] is that our attitudes about older adults are shaped by the life stage we are at right now,” Chopik wrote on the website MedicalResearch.com. “I will also say that it looks like these effects are driven by people’s bleak perceptions about what older adulthood is like.”

“However, there’s also research showing that older adulthood can be quite enriching,” he added, “with some studies showing that older adults are even happier than younger adults.”

FMI: You can read the study in full on the Frontiers in Psychology website.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/07/2018 - 10:04 am.

    It fits my experience

    I can’t claim to be “young” at 73, but, as the study’s authors suggest, my perceptions have changed over time. I clearly remember, at age 8, thinking that someone in high school was “old” in the sense of being much more capable, and having much more in the way of freedom and opportunity than I did.

    40 was “old” when I was in my 20s, 60 was “old” when I was 40, and now that I’m in my 70s, and increasing numbers of the people in the obituary pages of the ‘Strib are younger than I am, I find that “old” is drifting upward into the 80s and beyond. As part of a writing workshop I took part in when in my early 40s, I wrote a short story/death fantasy that has me expiring peacefully at age 88. Since I’m already beyond my Biblical three score and ten, at least the chronological part of that fantasy seems increasingly to be within reach, and people in various walks of life, including my physician, have said I seem younger than my chronological age, which I take to be a good sign.

    On the other hand, I’ve read enough science-fiction and other fiction, and thought about it enough myself, to make immortality not only unlikely, but undesirable unless I can maintain satisfactory (to me) physical and intellectual abilities. Alas, there’s no credible evidence that that seems possible, either globally or in my own individual case, so I find myself back at the starting line of the “quantity” vs. “quality” conundrum regarding lifespan.

  2. Submitted by John Webster on 03/07/2018 - 10:55 am.

    Perceptions of Time

    Our perceptions of age definitely change as we get older. Our perceptions of time also change. I remember going to family gatherings in my growing-up years, and hearing the older relatives frequently say that “the older you get, the faster the time goes.” I would think of my Timex wristwatch and wonder how the second hand could go around the dial any faster for them than for me. The older folks were, of course, correct. The days, weeks, months, and years fly by now at accelerating rates every year. Soon enough we’ll be through the first quarter of 2018. We all need to enjoy life while we’re physically and mentally able to do so.

    • Submitted by chuck holtman on 03/07/2018 - 03:35 pm.

      To compare the speed at which a given interval of time

      is perceived to pass as between individuals of different ages, place the age in the denominator.

  3. Submitted by Mark Voorhees on 03/07/2018 - 03:45 pm.

    Another perception

    Our perception of our own life expectancy increases because we reach a new age. We then realize we won’t croak tomorrow so it must be some time in the future. If in good health, then we can we can be optimistic in our determination.

  4. Submitted by ian wade on 03/08/2018 - 02:48 am.

    The elephant in the room

    is the demise of family and peers. Nothing brings the cruel hard fact about your own mortality to light more than dealing with the illnesses and deaths of friends in your own age bracket. When you’re thirty and grandpa dies, it’s “well, he had a good run.” When you’re sixty and your college buddy is fighting liver cancer, the reality of your own eventual demise becomes a lot less abstract.

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