When does old age begin? Elderly adults believe that old age begins later in life than their peers did decades ago, a recent survey revealed.

Researchers behind the survey noticed an upward shift in people's perception of age, as respondents who are now in their mid-60s perceive old age to begin at 75. Interestingly, as individuals age, they often redefine the age they perceive as old, pushing that threshold further upward.

The researchers arrived at these findings based on survey responses from more than 14,000 individuals born between 1911 and 1974, all participants in the ongoing German Ageing Survey. During the span of 25 years, from 1996 to 2021, participants who were between 40 and 100 years old responded to survey questions up to eight times. As the study progressed, additional participants aged 40 to 85 years were recruited, as later generations entered into midlife and old age.

During the survey, the participants were asked: "At what age would you describe someone as old?" While analyzing the responses, the team observed a shift in the perceived start of old age over historical periods.

Middle-aged and older adults now think old age starts later than their counterparts did one or two decades ago. Furthermore, as individuals age, the perceived onset of old age rises more steeply today compared to earlier times.

"Using longitudinal multilevel regression models, we found that at age 64, the average perceived onset of old age is at about age 75 years. Longitudinally, this perceived onset age increased by about 1 year for every 4–5 years of actual aging. We also found evidence of historical change. Compared to the earliest-born cohorts, later-born cohorts reported a later perceived onset of old age, yet with a decelerating trend among more recent birth cohorts," the researchers wrote in the study published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

The upward shift is believed to be due to an increase in life expectancy, retirement age, and other factors such as better psychosocial functioning in later life.

"Life expectancy has increased, which might contribute to a later perceived onset of old age. Also, some aspects of health have improved over time, so that people of a certain age who were regarded as old in the past may no longer be considered old nowadays," said study author Dr. Markus Wettstein from Humboldt University in Germany in a news release.

The researchers also examined how personal traits like gender and health influenced variations in the perception. They observed that, on average, women perceived that old age starts two years later than men did, with this gender gap widening over time.

Additionally, people who reported higher levels of loneliness, poorer health, and feeling older tended to perceive old age as starting earlier compared to those who were less lonely, in better health, and felt younger.

"It is unclear to what extent the trend towards postponing old age reflects a trend towards more positive views on older people and aging, or rather the opposite—perhaps the onset of old age is postponed because people consider being old to be an undesirable state," Wettstein said.

The researchers suggest future studies to explore whether the trend of delaying old age persists in a wider range of populations globally, including non-Western countries, and to know how cultural and national contexts influence it.