When did you first feel old?

April 13, 2023

“I feel old.” Those three little words pop into just about everybody’s head, often at random moments, reports The Wall Street Journal. Your back gives out after a workout. Walking by a store window, you catch a glimpse of yourself that looks like your dad. You’re at a concert, can’t wait for it to end, and are dreading traffic.


Even the young feel old. Matt McDermit, who just turned 31, recently bought a coffee at Starbucks on the campus of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where he works as a social media manager. The barista called him “Sir,” which is what his mother taught him to call older people when he was little. It was around the time a student jokingly said McDermit, who has a beard and shaved head, could pass as her dad and get a free guest meal pass.


He’s not particularly fond of his birthday either, because he feels that each one distances him further from the innocence of childhood. He still remembers his uncle telling him on his tenth birthday that it was the end of his single-digit years. “I was like ‘What? What do you mean?’”


Usually, when someone says they feel old, it’s not a good thing because the word “old” is applied widely and disparagingly. An old car means a wreck. An old dress means don’t be seen in it. “There is almost no way of saying ‘I feel old,’ to mean ‘I feel great,’” says Laura Carstensen, a Stanford University psychology professor and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.


She says people come to feel old for two reasons—one physical and one social. On the physical side, the doctor prescribes heart medication for the first time. Hairlines recede. The social “you’re old” cue often comes from others, either directly—the “You’re too old to wear that” comment from a friend while shopping—or indirectly by comparing ourselves with others, or our previous faster and leaner selves.


Feeling old matters, says Dr. Carstensen, 63. If you feel young, regardless of age, you tend to live longer than if you feel old, as in sick and tired. “Subjective age predicts how long you live,” she says.


People don’t mind feeling older when it’s in the context of being more capable and competent, says Bill Thomas, an author and geriatrician.


He distinctly remembers the day horsing around with his youngest son, then about 15, and realizing his son was stronger than he was. “I was no longer the dad who was stronger,” says Thomas, who describes himself as a big person who has always taken a lot of pride in his physical strength. “That time is gone from me and it’s not coming back.” He had to shift his ego center, away from physical strength, to emotional and intellectual strength.


“Feeling old isn’t bad. But it is really complicated,” he says.


Professional athletes and those who labor physically for a living might feel older before others. An NBA team with an average age of 28 might be considered old to some. Women tend to feel old more often because they pay close attention to their bodies and notice sagging arms.


Carolyn Black Becker, a professor of psychology at Trinity University in San Antonio, surveyed more than 900 women between the ages of 18 and 87 and found that more than half of 18- to 29-year-olds worried about looking old. She blames, in part, the proliferation of antiaging products and procedures, which send the message that aging is bad.


Becker, an expert on eating disorders, launched her study after her Pilates instructor came up to her and said, “So, the fat talk is much better, but what do I do about the old talk?”


Becker celebrates age, and says she is 50, even though her 50th birthday isn’t until January. Yet, she was taken aback a bit when she received a mailing saying she would soon be eligible for senior discounts. “I’m not dying to be 28 again, but even I found that it feels a little old to be a member of AARP.”


While young people sometimes feel old, the older often feel young or at least not as old as they are. A 2009 Pew Research Center study found that 60% of adults 65 and older feel younger than their age, with the gap between actual age and “felt age” widening as people grow older. Nearly half of those ages 50 and older say they feel at least ten years younger, while a third of those 65 to 74 feel 10 to 19 years younger.


Age hit Jon Banuelos, a musician, when he was about 35 and moved from flat Texas to hilly Pittsburgh and went for a long bike ride. “I came home and passed out for like five hours. I thought, ‘What is wrong with me?’” says Banuelos, now 40. A friend recently asked him to play tennis. “I can’t, man. My knees are hurting,” he recalls saying. But the birth of his son six months ago has made him feel young and determined to stay fit. “I need to be ready for when he’s two and three and running around,” he says.


Awareness of age isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist and author. Appreciating that time isn’t endless helps set priorities.

She believes people feel and act old because they are expected to once they reach a certain age—in part because of cultural markers, like senior discounts.


If anyone over 50 is sore after gardening, they blame age, rather than spending 45 minutes in an awkward position, says Dr. Langer, who was recently reminded of her age after scrolling down an inordinate number of years on her computer to log in her 1947 birth date.


Research contact: @WSJ