When Does Old Age Begin?

Check out these markers of old age

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When does someone become old? At age 68. That’s the average of 2,969 answers provided to this question in a recent Pew Research Center telephone survey of Americans age 18 and older. But the responses varied depending on the age and gender of the person answering the question. Most people under age 30 (60 percent) said the typical person becomes old before reaching their 60th birthday. Those currently age 65 and older say old age begins at age 74. Women, on average, say a person becomes old at age 70, while men say age 66 is old.

To complicate matters further, only a fraction of the survey participants said that their chronological age captured how old they feel. Among adults 65 and older, only 32 percent say they feel exactly their age. Most (60 percent) feel younger than their age, and only 3 percent feel older. Even among 18 to 29-year-olds, only about half say they feel their age, while a quarter feel both older and younger. The survey then asked about other potential markers of old age including retirement, forgetfulness, experiencing bladder control problems, getting gray hair, and having grandchildren. The survey respondents said a person is old when he or she:

  • Turns 85 (79 percent)
  • Can’t live independently (76 percent)
  • Can’t drive a car (66 percent)
  • Turns 75 (62 percent)
  • Frequently forgets familiar names (51 percent)
  • Has failing health (47 percent)
  • Has trouble climbing stairs (45 percent)
  • Has bladder control problems (42 percent)
  • Is no longer sexually active (33 percent)
  • Turns 65 (32 percent)
  • Retires (23 percent)
  • Has grandchildren (15 percent)
  • Has gray hair (13 percent)
  • Source: Pew Research Center

    But there was also an age gap when using these markers as indicators of what makes someone old. For example, while 44 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 said that retiring from work makes someone old, only 10 percent of those age 65 and older agreed. There was more agreement among the age groups when health problems were used as an indicator of aging, including failing health, an inability to live independently, an inability to drive, and difficulty with stairs.

    In general, the share of adults under age 64 who feared aging problems was much larger than the number of older adults actually living with them. Those age 65 and older said they had experienced only a few of the burdens of old age including memory loss (25 percent), a serious illness (21 percent), not being sexually active (21 percent), and feeling sad or depressed (20 percent).  Far greater numbers of the older adults experienced positive aspects of aging including spending more time with family (70 percent), not working (66 percent), more time for hobbies and interests (65 percent), and more financial security (64 percent). Most of the adults age 65 and older in the survey said their daily activities include talking with family or friends every day (90 percent), reading a book, newspaper, or magazine (83 percent), taking a prescription drug daily (83 percent), watching over an hour of television (77 percent), and praying (76 percent).

    When asked what age they would ideally like to live to, the average response among all age groups was 89. About 20 percent of the respondents said they would like to live into their 90s and only 8 percent hope to see their 100th birthday.

    For more information, see:

    • World's 65 and Older Population Will Triple by 2050
    • Work-Related Stress Could Impact Your Health in Retirement
    • Will Your Retirement Be Worse Than Your Parent’s Was?