"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

When does an older person become old?

By on July 25, 2020 in Columnist with 1 Comment
Jim Brown

By Jim Brown, M.D.

There are commonly used definitions or perceptions of “old age” but there is no general agreement on the age when someone becomes “old.” 

Our biologic age is not synonymous with our chronologic age, which is our age from birth to the present. 

Most of developed countries in the world have accepted the chronologic age of 65 years as a definition of an elderly or older person. 

As far back as 1875, the “Friendly Society in Britain” defined old age as any age after 50, and pension schemes often use 60 to 65 for eligibility. 

In the United States we can start collecting social security payments at age 62 or wait to age 66 or 67 to get full social security. The United Nations has generally used 65 plus to refer to “older” persons. 

However, in some of the poorest countries like Africa, “old age” is considered to be 55. Other countries, led by Japan including Italy, Finland, Portugal and Greece and a majority of all European countries have over 20 percent of their population over the age of 65. 

Roughly 49 million or 15 percent of America’s population is over age 65. This is predicted to double to 88 million by year 2050.

As seniors live longer, many are finding things more expensive and without much of a safety net. As a result about one in five Americans over age 65 are still working by necessity or by choice (this was the case at least prior to our current pandemic). 

Changes in our retirement systems are now causing many employers to shift the responsibility for saving for retirement to their workers, which is further increasing the rich-poor divide. 

Two previous recessions also have devastated personal savings for many as well. At the same time social security payments have lost about one-third of their purchasing power since 2000. Polls show older people worry more about their money running out than they worry about dying. The “golden” years of retirement are not so golden for many these days. 

Personally, my greatest concern about living to a ripe old age is getting dementia, or living out my life in an assisted living facility or a nursing home. I would prefer dying “peacefully” to that.

At a certain age, many of us start to wonder about “how much time do I have left?” 

We usually think of our chronologic age as a benchmark, but that just tells us only how long we have lived. We should be thinking of how many years we might have left and whether or not it is too late to alter that event. 

You can go to the Social Security Life Expectancy calculator to get some statistical idea on your likely life expectancy. If you are already in the elderly group, you might want to skip that step, which might not be very up lifting.

We need to focus more on aging better, at least in the time we have remaining. 

Obviously, that varies from person to person. It is affected in part by genetics to some degree but more so by our life styles, eating habits, daily exercise, bodyweight, blood pressure, smoking history, alcohol intake and chronic medical issues and diseases. 

We seniors over age 60 often become concerned about memory lapses that seem to occur more frequently as we age. These are not necessarily signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s. 

Some of the things we can do to reduce that risk include staying physically active, getting adequate sleep (at least seven hours a night), not smoking, having good social connections (six feet apart these days), limiting alcohol to one drink a day or less, and eating a Mediterranean type diet. 

In my many years of medical practice, I enjoyed seeing those senior patients who are referred to as “super agers.” This term refers to those over 80 years of age who are physically active, mentally alert and fully engaged in their life and the world around them. 

I was particularly interested in what they did to maintain themselves at what seemed to be at a much younger age level than their current chronologic age. 

Was it genetics, a lifetime of good healthy habits? They were obviously fortunate to have avoided many of the chronic diseases so prevalent in the elderly. 

Thomas Perls, M.D, a Boston geriatrician said, “It’s a myth that the older you get, the sicker you get. It’s more like, the older you get the healthier you’ve been.”

An example of a super ager was Paul Thomas, Sr. the founder of Oneonta Star Fruit Company in Wenatchee. 

He saw me periodically over his later years and was in his 90s when he died. He always came dressed in a suit and tie and carried the Wall Street Journal under his arm. After I checked him he would go to work at his office at Oneonta Fruit. 

Another super ager was my friend Stearns Eason. He wrote and published his autobiography at age 98. It was an informative and enjoyable read. 

Stearns remained active physically and mentally all his life. Well into his 90s, he had two kilns in his basement where he made stained glass windows and glass lamps. 

On his 100th birthday, several of us played golf with him. Known as an amazing putter he sank a 20-foot put on a most difficult green, cementing his putting reputation forever. Stearns died at age 104.

My daily motto is, “Live everyday to its fullest, spend time with your family and friends, eat well, stay active and keep moving.” 

Jim Brown, M.D., is a retired gastroenterologist who has practiced for 38 years in the Wenatchee area. He is a former CEO of the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center.

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  1. Tracy faulkner says:

    Great quote by Thomas Perls, M.D, “It’s a myth that the older you get, the sicker you get. It’s more like, the older you get the healthier you’ve been.”

    It seems as though you will be a super ager!

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