What age do you think corresponds to middle age? From 40 to 60 years? From 50 to 70? Somewhere in between?
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the answer people give to this depends on how old they are at the time they heard the question.
When half a million people filled out an online questionnaire in 2018, respondents between the ages of 20 and 30 responded that, on average, middle age began at age 40, while old age began at 62.
On the other hand, those over 65 did not think that old age was reached before the age of 71.
It’s pretty obvious what happens. Nobody likes to think they’re getting older — so if you’re 40, you love articles that proclaim that 40 is the new 30.
Likewise, people in their 70s are excited by suggestions that, with advances in nutrition and health care, they are practically out of middle age.
Furthermore, we tend to want to dissociate ourselves from any group that is stigmatized.
This means that we resist being designated as old, when we see the elderly portrayed as fragile, sedentary, sick and even a burden to society.
Of course, old age is a reality, and the elderly must be treated with respect and dignity.
Is it then that people are simply deluding themselves when they refuse to consider themselves old?
In fact, this can be a sensible strategy that can be carried out and improve the quality of life.
In 2003, researchers Hannah Kuper and Michael Marmot (famous for demonstrating the impact that socioeconomic status can have on our health and life expectancy) conducted a large study in which participants were again asked: When does old age begin?
The answers varied, of course, but what Kuper and Marmot found was that people who thought old age started earlier were more likely to have a heart attack, suffer from heart disease, or be in generally poor physical health when monitored every six months. to nine years later.
Participants in this research were participating in the so-called Whitehall II study, a longitudinal study of more than 10,000 civil servants working in London.
The survey is robust and participants answered a wide variety of questions.
This meant that Kuper and Marmot could establish that other factors, such as level of employment, could not explain differences in health outcomes.
So how could the age you designate the onset of old age have such a big impact on your health?
Thinking about old age can make us less active and thus affect our health — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
One theory is that the answer to the simple question of “when does old age begin” actually provides a lot more information about a person than you might think.
It could be, for example, that the question prompts people to think about their own physical health, and if they have pre-existing health issues or a poor lifestyle, they may not feel so good and think that old age is getting closer. early.
People who say old age comes faster may also be more fatalistic and less likely to seek help for health problems or adopt healthier routines, believing that decline is inevitable.
They may assume, for example, that older people are frail, and start to deliberately slow down and take it easy, when this is exactly what they shouldn’t be doing for their physical and mental health.
They can expect to forget things due to age, so they stop relying on their memories. It’s even possible that the stress of holding on to negative ideas about aging contributes to chronic inflammation and more long-term health problems.
So living up to the stereotype of an older person could add to the very problems they fear.
And, of course, the reverse can be true as well.
People who think old age starts later may be more conscious about their health and fitness and therefore take active steps to stay fit.
They believe they are younger and therefore behave younger, creating a virtuous circle.
Whatever the explanation, Kuper and Marmot’s study isn’t the only research to demonstrate measurable benefits of thinking positively about aging.
Becca Levy of the Yale School of Public Health also produced extraordinary results, using data from the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement, which followed more than 1,000 people who were at least 50 years old at the time.
Levy found that people who had positive ideas about their own aging (who agreed with comments like “I have as much vitality as I did last year” and who disagreed that as you get older you become less useful) lived an average of 22.6 years after they were older. participated in the study for the first time, while those who felt less positive about old age lived, on average, only 15 years longer.
Then came a new study led by Susanne Wurm of the University of Greifswald in northern Germany that may define the problem more precisely.
And their findings offer good news for people who think more negatively about the onset of old age. They were no more likely than average to die early.
But again, people who saw old age more positively, as a time to learn new things and make new plans, for example, lived longer on average.
In this study, it didn’t matter so much what people thought about the physical implications of aging, what mattered was whether they believed they would still develop and grow mentally.
Thinking you’re younger can open you up to new experiences that have lasting positive effects — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
None of this research means we can magically stop or reverse the aging process.
Vision, hearing, memory, muscle mass, bone strength, recovery processes: you name it, it all declines. And older people are obviously more vulnerable to a whole variety of illnesses.
All of these large studies are based on averages, so saying you’re not middle-aged won’t keep everyone from getting sick.
But in the book The Expectation Effect, science journalist David Robson gives some hints.
It indicates that instead of mourning the loss of youth, we should focus on the experiences and knowledge we acquire as we age — and realize how much better we handle situations.
When older people don’t feel well, they shouldn’t assume it’s all due to old age.
Above all, as we get older, we should never give up trying to be healthier and believe that we can still do a lot.
If we adopt this attitude, we will probably live longer and enjoy these years.