John Humphrys: How old is “old”?

April 26, 2024, 1:24 PM GMT+0

A YouGov study in 2018 found that age 70 is the point where most Britons consider someone to be old, although the results differ by age. You can see the results here.

Forgive me for being a little personal, but how old are you? Perhaps I should rephrase that question. How old do you feel? I raise this rather delicate issue because of some new research by Humboldt University in Berlin that says the concept of old age has changed. The study is part of an ongoing German ageing survey that follows people born between 1911 and 1974.

We used to think we were old at 60. So did the state. Indeed it still does in some respects. That’s when most of us can qualify for so-called ‘freedom passes’ or travel passes. The state pension kicks in a few years later but many qualify for private workplace pensions at 60 – or even a little earlier with privately funded pensions.

What makes the German research so interesting – and potentially important – is that our attitude towards ageing is changing. Where once we might have accepted that 60 or 65 was ‘old’ we are now more likely to put it at 74 or even higher. It seems the age at which we consider ourselves to be old has moved upwards over the generations and will continue to do so. If I were writing this in ten or twenty years’ time the goalposts for ageing would have moved even further.

At first sight the reasons are pretty obvious. The study identifies advances in medical science and treatment as the biggest factor. The retirement threshold is another. When I joined the BBC some fifty years ago you handed in your pass when you were sixty. And the reason the BBC’s pension fund was so healthy was that you would probably stop claiming the benefits long before you were seventy. That’s because you’d be dead. That has changed pretty swiftly over the years. Life expectancy has grown beyond the imagination of us oldies.

Here's how it was explained by Dr Markus Wettstein, the co-author of the Humboldt University study: “We should be aware that conceptions and perceptions of ‘old’ change across historical time, and that people are quite different regarding when they think old age begins, dependent on their age, their birth cohort, but also their health etc.”

Wettstein and his colleagues analysed responses to the question: “At what age would you describe someone as old?”. Some 14,000 people who were middle-aged and older were asked the same question eight times over a 25-year period from 1996. Interestingly, the perception of when old age begins was higher for women than men, and lower for those who had poor health or were more lonely.

Does any of this really matter? Caroline Abrahams, the charity director at Age UK, believes it does. The fact that we tend to judge “old” as meaning at least a few years beyond our chronological age, even in our 70s and 80s, probably reflects the bad image of “old” in western cultures.

“This is a shame” she says, “if it holds us back from living as full and happy lives as we could and should in our later years, because of us self-limiting our activities and aspirations”.

Instead, Abrahams said the idea that we are “as old as we feel” is a lot more supportive: “The truth is that chronological age is rarely a good proxy for anything and the sooner we realise that in our society, the better,”

But try telling that to someone like my friend and former colleague Jenni Murray, who happens to be 73. Dame Jenni, as she became when she stopped presenting Woman’s Hour four years ago, has no intention of retiring and now writes a weekly column for the Daily Mail. Here’s how she described her reaction to the German study: “Some days I feel 16 again, brimming with life and enthusiasm. That was such a good age. Lots of hard work for the exams, but I've never been afraid of that. There was so much to look forward to. Always friends to sit and chat with about clothes, shoes, music and make-up…. Parties to plan, decisions about which boys to invite and long discussions about how far one should go and with which one.

“On other days I wake up and a touch of arthritis has set in. I feel not 73 but 103, not wanting to get up, teeter stiffly down the stairs and get on with whatever job needs doing.”

Her point is that ageing incorporates such a vast spectrum that she does not accept the German survey results: “Clearly none of us wants to be considered 'old'. I still work so I refuse to accept that I'm — oh the horror! — an old age pensioner. Even though I'm grateful for the £975.82 state pension that lands in my account every month.”

She also considers herself lucky to be one of the women who qualified for the state pension at the age of 60 before, as she puts it, “the qualifying age rose and rose with the acknowledgement of longer life spans, thanks to better nutrition and better healthcare.” And then, of course, the other free perks were added on such as travel passes.

She accepts that our concept of old age has changed and is changing but, she asks somewhat mischievously, why stop at 74? “ This means in just under a month's time, on my birthday, I'll be deemed 'elderly'.”

But what does that mean?

Having asked you at the start of this column about your age I must come clean about my own and admit that I am probably older than you. Older even than Dame Jenni. But do I think of myself as ‘elderly’? It won’t surprise you to know that my answer is positively not. And in some respects we lead similar lives or, rather, have similar attitudes. She writes: “You know you are who you have always been. You read the same papers and new and challenging books… You reject anyone saying, 'You can't do that at your age' and do it anyway.’

But what about the male/female factor? I do not, unlike Jenni, “look down at my arms, once so silky smooth and wonder how the now dry, saggy skin ­happened. It might be better suited to an armadillo”. In spite of that the survey does confirm what I suspect most of us knew anyway: women age much better than men, and the initial two-year difference extends over time.

Why might this be? Is it, as Jenni suspects, that we men “sink into retirement, relieved at no longer having to make an effort?” Is it because we “have never learned the true value of friends so don't bother to keep up with anyone we've talked with in the past? Are we lonely?” After all, loneliness is a major factor in ageing badly.

Jenni believes that women work far harder at ­“staying young”. She says it is “a battle that seems to start in our 50s. Look at any group at that age and the women look and act at least a decade younger than their men. We meet friends and compliment each other on how good we look. We share tales of trips to the gym or the swimming pool. We make plans for the future.”

That’s one approach to defining old age. Another is through a rather more clinical lens: the physiological and cognitive changes associated with aging. I may be wrong about this but I suspect it’s the cognitive aspect that worries most of us oldies the most. Dare I even say “oldies”?

I’m one of those who boasts endlessly about being physically fitter now than I was in my thirties. I get up every morning of my life at about six, go for a run in my local park, spend my working hours at a stand-up desk and have a fairly rigorous exercise regime every day and I cycle everywhere. My diet is just what the doctors order: tons of fruit and veg and nuts and olive oil etc etc. I drink almost no alcohol and don’t smoke.

So my body is in good nick. I sleep well and my blood pressure makes my GP smile. Maybe I’ll live to 120. But would I want to?

This is where the cognitive factor rears its ugly head. I have virtually no friends of a similar age who don’t worry about their memory fading. So do I. I don’t worry about my heart but I do worry about my head – or, rather, what’s happening inside it.

And what about you? How old do you feel? If you are still relatively young, when do you think you will cross that threshold? When do you think you will be “elderly”? Do you worry about it and order your life accordingly or do you take a more cavalier approach? Are you one of those who says you’re only young once and you’re going to make the most of it?

Let us know.

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