Despite a large body of evidence suggesting old age is experienced as younger, more agentic, and happier than ever before, two studies published in the journal Psychology and Aging have found that older adults today do not have more favorable views of their age than two decades ago.
Old age in the 21st century does not quite map on to old age in prior eras. For example, 75-year-old Berliners today are in better cognitive shape than those of 20 years ago. They are happier, more satisfied with life, less lonely, and tend to feel less controlled by others. Over the last several decades, various aspects of physical and mental health have seen improvements. But do these historical trends extend to how individuals view their own aging process?
Utilizing data from matched cohorts of older adults in two independent studies tested two decades apart, Hans-Werner Wahl and colleagues sought to answer this question. Data was obtained from the Berlin Aging Studies (BASE; 1990/1993 vs. 2017/2018, with 256 participants in each) as well as the Midlife in the United States Study (MIDUS; 1995/1996 vs. 2013/2014, with 848 participants in each). The mean ages of the studies were 77 and 67 for BASE and MIDUS respectively.
To examine subjective age in the BASE, the authors referred to a set of one-item assessments (e.g., How old you feel?; How old would you say you look in the mirror?). While similar, questions in the MIDUS were phrased slightly differently (e.g., Many people feel older or younger than they actually are. What age do you feel most of the time?). Attitude toward one’s own aging was only available for the BASE and measured using five items (e.g., Things keep getting worse as I get older; I am as happy now as I was when I was younger).
Across four dimensions of views on aging in the BASE, including positive attitudes toward aging, subjective age felt, subjective age appeared, and subjective age desired – and supported by measures of subjective age felt and desired in the MIDUS, the researchers found no evidence that older adults today have more favorable views of their age compared to matched-age peers from several decades prior.
Empirical studies point to a general pattern of improvement in the functioning of older adults, which was likewise confirmed in the current work. But it appears improvements in older adults’ various domains of functioning does not necessitate more positive views of aging.
Research suggests that general views on aging have increasingly become more negative in the last two centuries. Despite this, older adults have resisted societal attitudes toward aging. This decoupling of individualized and societal age views may be explained by the theory of individualization in sociology.
As well, in the minds of older adults, today’s old age may no longer be synonymous with decline and deterioration. Thus, older adults continue feeling younger than their chronological age, but this age bias is not getting larger in more recent cohorts.
Lastly, education has steadily increased throughout history, and is associated with outcomes such as cognitive ability. However, despite education being associated with higher levels of cognitive functioning in early adulthood, it does not influence rates of cognitive decline. As such, improvements in old age functioning could reflect the operation of historical changes which improve the level of functioning in early adulthood, but do not affect the rate of change in later life. In this case, later-born people who compare their current functioning to earlier states may perceive losses of similar magnitude to earlier born individuals, resulting in similar views of aging throughout history.
The researchers note a few limitations. First, results were obtained for individuals in their 60s and 70s and may not extend to adults in their late 80s and 90s. Second, post hoc analyses were conducted using data sets that were not designed for the purpose of cohort analysis, thus the generalization of findings is limited. And third, given the samples were comprised of German and North American individuals, the findings may not generalize to other cultures or ethnicities.
The research, “Subjective Age and Attitudes Toward Own Aging Across Two Decades of Historical Time”, was authored by Hans-Werner Wahl, Johanna Drewelies, Sandra Duezel, Margie E. Lachman, Jacqui Smith, Peter Eibich, Elisabeth Steinhagen-Thiessen, Ilja Demuth, Ulman Lindenberger, Gert G. Wagner, Nilam Ram, and Denis Gerstorf.