02/24/2012 02:30 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2012

When Are We Old?

The advent of another birthday recently prompted me to ask myself: At what age does a person stop getting older and actually become old? In other words, when does old age begin?

Turns out I'm far from the first person to ask this question. In fact, it was the subject of a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center which asked it of 3,000 people in a nationwide poll.

Averaging together all the answers, the researchers came up with an actual figure. Americans believe old age begins at age 68. But there was no consensus. Those under 30 thought it began before people hit their 60th birthday while those 65 or older thought it would begin at age 74.

Responses also varied by gender. On average, women say old age begins at age 70 while men thought it begins at 66. Perhaps this reflects the greater life expectancy for women.

Of course, different people become "old" at different points so the idea of assigning a set age to mark the transition is a little silly. To some extent, the old adage that you're only as old as you feel is correct.

Several studies have tried to link oldness to the ability to perform certain tasks. Thus, in the Pew study, 76 percent agreed that someone unable to live independently was old while only 66 percent thought that a person who could no longer drive a car fit that category. Forty five percent thought a person who had trouble climbing stairs ought to be regarded as old but only a third thought that of a person who was no longer sexually active. And only 13 percent believed that having gray hair made someone old.

One is reminded of the wonderful poem by Lewis Carroll:

"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head--
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

Another study in Europe in 2010 found that the average Briton believed that youth lasted until the age of 35 and old age begins at 58 -- which happens to be my age. This seems a bit severe.

There were also large differences among European countries. Youth was perceived to end earliest among the Portuguese; they said it was at 29, while in Cyprus it was 45. The Portuguese also thought old age began at 51 -- whereas Belgians put it at 64.

Another way to look at the problem is through a legal lens since the treatment of the elderly has various judicial ramifications. For example:
• Age 40 is the age at and beyond which a person may not be discriminated against in employment. (Age Discrimination in Employment Act)
• Low income individuals might qualify for subsidized employment and learn new work skills at age 55. (Title V of the Older Americans Act)
• People can take early retirement at age 62 under the Social Security Act but 65 was the traditional age for full retirement. However, the full retirement age is going up for people born after 1938. Those born in 1960 or later will only qualify when they hit 67.
• Age 70 has been used as a mandatory retirement for the members of some professions.

Nowadays, of course, the word "old" itself is changing. We have to get used to the differences between the "young-old" and the "old-old." If you count the baby, the toddler, the pre-teen, the teen, the post teen, the young-middle aged, the middle-middle-aged, the old-middle-aged, the young-old, the middle-aged-old, the old-old, and the truly we're not kidding, honest to goodness really, really old, we get well beyond Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man."

At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin'd,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav'd, a world too wide,
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

However we slice it and dice it and however much we try to delay it, we are all getting older. Our hearing starts going in our forties, our touch in our fifties, our taste shortly after, our sense of smell in our seventies and then of course there's the issue of memory.

Let's end with Psalm 71, verse 18:

Now also when I am old and grayheaded, O God, forsake me not;
Until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come.