What’s so bad about aging?

Remember when you were a kid and people over the age of 20 seemed grown-up — and over 30 was practically ancient ?

It’s not surprising that our idea of “old” changes as we age, but new research shows that our attitudes about aging itself are changing too. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project in February and March 2009 revealed some interesting trends — as well as misperceptions — about “growing old.”

The Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality study polled nearly 3000 adults of all ages and asked about topics such as negative benchmarks of aging (like memory loss and failing health), what benefits are typically enjoyed by older adults and when old age actually starts. Here are some of the key findings:

Young(er) at heart

Here’s further proof that age is “all in your head”: The results show that as people get older, there’s a widening gap between how old they feel versus how old they actually are . Not surprisingly, people in their twenties report feeling like they are in their twenties. However, that “twenty-something” feeling follows people into their thirties, and after that people continue to fall even further behind. For example, many forty year olds still feel like they’re in their mid-thirties, and people in their fifties feel like they’re in their forties.

Naturally, the gap gets even wider as age increases. According to the survey, only one third of people over 65 report that they feel exactly their age versus the 60 per cent who say they feel younger.

Just how much younger? Nearly half of people over the age of 50 feel ten years younger. Respondents in the 65 – 74 age group report feeling even younger than that — with one in three people saying they felt 10 – 19 years younger, and one in six feeling 20 years younger than their actual age.

“Old age” — when does it start?

If people are feeling younger than ever before, at what age does “being old” actually start? Survey respondents had an opinion on that subject too, and the results point to yet another sliding scale. The average reply — age 68 — only tells part of the story. When asked at what age the average person becomes old, respondents in the 18 – 29 age group say age 60. However, 30 – 49 year olds push that age back to 69, and people 65+ say “old age” doesn’t start until 74.

How do people 75 and over feel about that? Only 35 per cent of them say they feel old. “Old age” is something that happens at a later time, and the majority of respondents don’t consider themselves to have reached it yet.

The numbers aren’t shocking — after all, our perception of “old” changes as we accumulate candles on our birthday cakes. However, what’s interesting to note is the gender gap. According to the Pew Research Center, men on average say that “old’ begins at an earlier age than women do. Across all age groups, women say old age starts at 70 while men place the threshold at 66. (Perhaps they can be forgiven — after all, a man’s life expectancy is still about five years less than a woman’s).

You know you’re getting old when…

Numbers weren’t the only thing the Pew Research Center asked about. Other markers such as failing health, forgetting names and retirement were considered too.

What makes a person old? Grey hair and grandchildren barely make the list with only 13 and 15 per cent of respondents saying they’re a marker of old age. Only one in five people link retirement to being old. And not being sexually active? Only one third think that makes people old.

However, when it comes to failing health and forgetting familiar names, respondents were split with answers at 47 per cent and 51 per cent respectively.

On the flip side, nearly two thirds of people believe a person is old when they turn 75, and almost 80 per cent think turning 85 was an indicator. Being unable to drive or unable to live independently were major factors too, with results showing up at 66 per cent and 76 per cent respectively.

In other words, numbers aren’t the only way to define age — quality of life and independence must be considered too.

Aging: not as bad as we think…?

So what are we afraid of anyway? The study shows that the expectations of younger people don’t match what older age groups actually experience when it comes to the negative aspects of aging. Considering the following:

– More than half of people under 65 expect memory loss as they age — but only one quarter of people over 65 report experiencing it (that’s a gap of 32 per cent).

– When it comes to driving, there’s a similar disparity: only 14 per cent of respondents over 65 say they are no longer able to drive, but 45 per cent of people under 65 anticipate the issue.

– Health issues may not be as bad either: 42 per cent expect a serious illness but only half that number of people over 65 report experiencing one.

– What about feeling lonely, being a burden to others and not feeling needed? Again, there’s a significant difference between what younger respondents predict and what older respondents actually experience.

– And there’s good news when it comes to sex — while one third of younger respondents predict they won’t be sexually active, nearly 80 per cent of people over 65 report that they still are. (In fact, age may even be an advantage in the bedroom — see The Zoomer Report for details).

…Or not as good as we anticipate?

Are these really the “golden years?” People over 65 report experiencing the many benefits that come with age. Sixty per cent of people over 65 say they’re feeling less stress than when they were younger, and they’re getting more respect. Two thirds are enjoying more time with friends and family and spending more time on their interests and hobbies. Despite economic woes, the majority say they’re feeling more financially secure than when they were younger.

But if you’re under 65, don’t set your sights too high just yet… The survey also shows that the reality may not measure up to the expectations of Baby Boomers and Generation X:

– Even though people are enjoying more time with their loved ones and doing the things they love, there’s a gap between expectations and reality of 12 and 16 per cent respectively. In short, older people don’t have as much time as younger people think.

– What about travelling and volunteering? Around 80 per cent of younger people expect to spend more on these activities when they’re older, yet just over half of older respondents actually do.

– When it comes to careers, nearly 40 per cent in the under 65 cohort anticipate the opportunity for a second career, but only 14 per cent of people 65+ report having one.

– And what about lower stress levels and more financial security? The proportions don’t quite match up there either. While the gap isn’t big, the numbers suggest that some people may be disappointed in the future.

To keep things in perspective, more than half of adults over 65 reported that the thing they value most about being older is spending more time with family — particularly the grandchildren.

Overall, life is good

When you put the challenges and benefits together, what do you get? Researchers found that older adults are about as happy as everyone else. One question even tackled the issue directly: respondents were asked if they were “very happy”, “pretty happy” or “not too happy”. The per centages did vary among the age groups, but not by wide margins. For instance, about 20 per cent of people in the 50-64, 65-74 and over 75 age groups report feeling “not too happy” compared to 14 per cent of 30-49 year olds or 9 per cent of adults between 18 and 29.

Like the younger cohorts, the majority of people over 50 report being “very happy” or “pretty happy”.

How can that be? Researchers note that many of the indicators of happiness earlier in life — like good health, financial security, and friends — are still present later in life. Part of the difference could be because of marriage, which is an indicator of happiness earlier in life but not necessarily later on. (That’s not to say that “old married couples” are less happy on the whole — it could be that many respondents are widows or widowers).

Overall, older people are pleased about how their lives have shaped up so far — 45 per cent of adults over 75 even report that their life has turned out better than anticipated, while only 5 per cent say it turned out worse. (The other 50 per cent either report that life turned out the way they expected or didn’t answer).

So what’s the bottom line? The results suggest that “aging well” isn’t an abstract idea — it’s becoming a reality. Our ideas about aging are still evolving, but they’re headed in the right direction.


Read the survey results and download the full report from the Pew Research Center.

(Note: Researchers acknowledge that some older respondents couldn’t be reached for the study due to factors like ill health or living in a nursing home. To help offset this bias, they contacted a sample of 200 adults caregivers and included those responses in their consideration.)

Do these results match your own experience? Tell us in the comments.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Randy Plett Photographs

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