Age is just a number, right? But what number is considered elderly?
The term “elderly” often denotes someone who is very old and frail and is not always seen as a term of endearment. In fact, one study showed that 57% of adults over the age of 65 disliked being called elderly.
Merriam-Webster defines “elderly” as “rather old” or “of, relating to, or characteristic of later life or elderly persons.” In other words, there’s not exactly a clear-cut definition of what age is considered elderly.
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“Elderly” is a highly subjective term. Even “old” can mean two different things to different people. This is especially true when asking people of different ages how they would define “old.”
The 2017 U.S. Trust Insights on Wealth & Worth report found that Millennials defined “old” as age 59. But Gen Xers said age 65 is old and baby boomers and the silent generation considered 73 as officially old.
So what is “elderly?”
Age 65 is one year that sticks out in the minds of many, as it’s the age most associated with retirement in America. You become eligible for Medicare at age 65. For many years, one also became eligible for full Social Security benefits at age 65, though that has changed in recent years.
Many 65-year-olds today are in terrific shape, are still working full-time and heading up many of the world’s largest companies. Four of the last seven presidents, including each of the last two, have been over the age of 65 while in office. It’s hard to describe anyone like this as “elderly.”
An Australian study attempted to determine how “elderly” patients are defined within clinical guidelines for the use of pharmacotherapy (using medications to treat disorders or diseases). Among the 20 guidelines reviewed, only three used an actual age to define “elderly.”
Life expectancy in the U.S. was 77.3 in 2020. Could you define “elderly” as anyone who surpasses the life expectancy for their respective gender, race and location?
Perhaps. Although defining “elderly” in such a way really moves the age at which someone could fit the definition over time. For instance, the life expectancy in the U.S. in 1900 was just 47.3 years, and most people would probably agree that describing a 48 year-old as “elderly” wouldn’t feel quite right, even a century ago.
Maybe elderly isn’t defined by the numbers of years lived, but by the number of years one has remaining.
That’s the approach taken by researchers at Stanford University, who defined “elderly” as someone with at least a 4% chance of dying within a year. For men, that equates to 76 years old and for women, 80 years old would be statistically “elderly.”
However, that definition could easily include people in their 50s with heart conditions and other serious health issues, and it would be misleading to classify any such people as “elderly.” While our cells have a finite life span, from a technical standpoint, nobody actually dies of “old age.”
A recent drop in life expectancy due to COVID-19 notwithstanding, humans continue to push the limits of how long we may live. Some recent research even suggests we have the genetic makeup to live as long as 150 years.
So what can we conclude? Age is just a number in the same way that “elderly” is just a word.
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Christian Worstell is a licensed insurance agent and a Senior Staff Writer for MedicareAdvantage.com. He is passionate about helping people navigate the complexities of Medicare and understand their coverage options.
His work has been featured in outlets such as Vox, MSN, and The Washington Post, and he is a frequent contributor to health care and finance blogs.
Christian is a graduate of Shippensburg University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He currently lives in Raleigh, NC.
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