Health & Wellness

60 really is the new 50, scientists say

If you believe 60 may indeed be the new 50, a study released today in the journal PLOS ONE has your back.

In fact, 60 — even 65 (or, maybe more) — can be considered "middle-aged," according to population experts at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIAS) in Austria and Stony Brook University in New York.

In this new study, researchers looked at the population composition of 39 European countries. They then compared the proportion of the population that was categorized as “old” by virtue of chronology alone — being age 65 — to the proportion based on a newer measure of age that they developed, which includes changes in life expectancy.

Specifically, the researchers wanted to tease out what would happen to this population over the period 2013 to 2050 assuming two different speeds of life expectancy increases. One speed was an increase of about 1.5 years of additional life per decade and another was no additional years of additional life.

Some factors affecting life expectancy include diet, weight, genetics, lifestyle and socioeconomics, among others.

“We found that when the speed of life expectancy increase was faster, the new measures of aging increase more slowly,” explains study co-author Warren Sanderson, a professor of economics and history at Stony Brook.

Although it may sound counter-intuitive, think of it this way: When life expectancy rates keep growing, the older population is probably pretty darn healthy, and while they may have creaky knees, they are overall much younger in terms of their health and life engagement than prior generations.

So, in essence, these so-called “faster increases” in life expectancy generally reflect a population that is actually aging more slowly, not rapidly, says Sanderson.

The work stems from prior research developed by IIAS, which looked at “prospective age,”

“Basically, what we want to do is to measure age not as the number of years since you were born, but as a measure or a distance of time to expected death,” Sanderson says. “Since life expectancies have increased over the past several decades — and are continuing to increase — people once considered ‘old’ should actually be viewed as more middle aged.”

Another way to look at it: It’s not about a number when it comes to age. It’s about how your body and mind measure up, physically.

Interestingly, using this “prospective age” model, the threshold for “old” is set at 15 years to projected life expectancy, according to their prior research.

Which is great news for those who are really young at heart — and tired of being called "old."

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, life expectancy in the U.S. rose in 2012 to 78.8 years of age, which is a record high. Women have an average life expectancy of 81.2 years of age. For men, it’s 76.4. Those estimates are for people who were born in 2012. But if you were 65 years of age in 2012, your average life expectancy is an additional 19.3 years (20.5 years for women and 17.9 years for men.)

While the study focused on European countries, in most developed countries today, life expectancy at age 65 is increasing by about 1.5 years per decade, says Sanderson.

That is, someone who is age 65 in 2015 can expect about an additional 19 years, per CDC data. But if you want to make a prediction what a person who is 65 in the year 2025 will have that's about 1.5 years more than the 19 years or so a 65 year old has in 2015.

“In the future, people could get much healthier and life expectancy at age 65 could increase by three years per decade," says Sanderson.

In a survey conducted by TODAY last year, involving about 1,500 participants ages 45 to 69, a whopping 72 percent of folks in their 60s said they felt younger than their age. And 79 percent said their journey through life, so far, was “about” what they expected or even “better” than they expected.

Of course, much of this age-acceptance can be attributed to better health compared to prior generations. Indeed, 14 percent of TODAY's survey participants rated their health as “excellent,” and 61 percent rated their health as “good.”

Studies that try to redefine aging, whether it’s for policy purposes or simply to reaffirm the fact that “60 isn’t old,” are always worthwhile, says Carolyn Aldwin, director of Oregon State University’s Center for Healthy Aging Research.

“There is great data showing that people in their 70s and 80s today are living with less disability than people in their 70s and 80s just 20 years ago, and we are learning how to live longer and better from what we’ve learned from prior generations," Aldwin said.

“For many, many people, I’m a firm believer that 60 is the new 50.”

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