ResearchFeelings about Ageing amidst Increased Quality of Life and Societal Perceptions

11 November 2021

Researchers analyse data on views on ageing in Germany and the USA

Empirical studies have proven that the quality of life of older people has improved over the last several decades. Yet this has no effect on their subjective experience of ageing. Older people do not view their own ageing experience any more positively than their same-aged peers about twenty years ago. This conclusion is reached in a study led by ageing researchers and psychologists of Heidelberg University and Humboldt University of Berlin using data on views of ageing in Germany and the USA. The reasons may include the rather negative view society takes on ageing along with growing fears of age-related loss of control and illness, the researchers surmise.

“From a historical perspective, ageing has become less complicated and overall more positive in the last several decades. Today’s older people are intellectually and physically fitter, happier, more satisfied, less lonely, and feel more independent than their peers 20 or 30 years ago,” explained Prof. Dr Hans-Werner Wahl, Senior Professor and Project Director at the Network Aging Research of Heidelberg University. Researchers from Germany and the USA have analysed data on views of ageing from both countries. It was collected from age-matched cohorts at various points in time: 1995 and 1996 as well as 2013 and 2014 in the USA, 1990 and 1993 as well as 2017 and 2018 in Germany. “In our study, we wanted to find out whether empirically measurable improvements in quality of life also resulted in more positive views of people’s experience of their age and ageing,” stated the researcher.

The data stemmed from the BASE and BASE-II Berlin Aging Studies as well as the MIDUS “Midlife in the United States” study in the USA, both of which explored the various facets of views on ageing, including the study participants’ subjective experience of growing older. No improvement was noted in how ageing was perceived by older persons in either country for any of the indicators queried over a period of 15 to 20 years. “We were surprised that the number of improvements in ageing appeared to have no effect on people’s personal experience,” stated Prof. Dr Denis Gerstorf, a developmental psychologist at Humboldt University of Berlin.

The researchers suspect a number of factors to be involved. Hans-Werner Wahl reports that society’s notions of ageing have worsened in many ways over the last few decades. Hence the observed lack of change in personal perceptions on ageing could be considered an achievement in that it reflects resistance to societal trends. The researchers further hypothesize that individual views on life may be becoming increasingly decoupled from generally observable changes. “In addition, ‘young’ old age as a success story of the modern era is increasingly superimposed on a protracted ‘old’ old age, which is associated with the fear of dementia and loss of autonomy,” stressed Denis Gerstorf. The study concludes that this complex interplay of factors may be the reason why there has been little improvement in how one perceives one’s age and ageing.

The results of the study were published in the journal “Psychology and Aging”.

Original publication

H.-W. Wahl, J. Drewelies, S. Duezel, M. E. Lachman, J. Smith, P. Eibich, E. Steinhagen-Thiessen, I. Demuth, U. Lindenberger, G. G. Wagner, N. Ram, D. Gerstorf: Subjective age and attitudes toward own aging across two decades of historical time, Psychology and Aging (25 October 2021, advance online publication)

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