The median age that adult Americans consider "old" is 72. That hasn't changed since the early 1980s, but a lot else about the aging process has.
For one thing, Americans are increasingly concerned about getting old. Roper Starch Worldwide recently found that 44 percent of Americans are concerned about aging, up from 38 percent in 1991. One in 10 is really worried about the prospect, with anxiety sharpest among those 45 to 59. Interestingly, the fear of aging recedes somewhat among those over 60, who are experiencing old age in the flesh.
While Roper found that 41 percent of adults associate aging with poor health, substantial numbers of Americans -- though never a majority -- also associate old age with loneliness, dependency on others, reduced mental acuity and lack of anything to do. Women worry about graying, wrinkles, age marks and visible veins, while men fret about a reduced sex drive.
But Americans see aging as more than a collection of negatives. Indeed, nearly half of adults associate getting older with getting wiser, while 45 percent happily anticipate retirement and having more time to enjoy themselves.
Almost a third of adults (30 percent) see getting older as a time of solidifying ties with family and friends and an opportunity to act as a good role model for young people.
In a survey earlier this year of more than 300 Americans, conducted on-line by New York-based CyberDialogue, 2 percent said "old" doesn't start until age 90, while 15 percent consider anyone over 80 to be old. Thirty-two percent said "old" applies to someone over 70, while 14 percent considered anyone over 60 to be old.
But 37 percent said age is unrelated to chronology. For them, age is only a state of mind.
CyberDialogue found that by and large, Americans are more afraid of aging than of dying, with aging cited as the greater worry by 53 percent of those surveyed.
If people could decide when to die peacefully in their sleep, 55 percent would "opt out" before age 90. Twenty-one percent would like to pass on between their 90th and 100th birthdays, while 24 percent would love to reach centenarian status.
Amazingly, 81 percent of Americans surveyed consider older people to be more of a gift than a burden to society -- and yet, here is a group that gets a lot of disrespect.
In general, "Old people in sitcoms are doddery, deaf figures of fun," points out Adam Morgan, director of planning, North America, for the TBWA Chiat/Day ad agency.
"We bombard these miraculously preserved senior citizens with a media celebrating the beauty and energy of youth," Morgan says, even though by the millennium, approximately one in five Americans will be over the age of 60.
Shows like "Melrose Place" and ads like Calvin Klein's remind older Americans "how out of place they are in modern America," Morgan says.
Older people rarely feel the age they look, he says. "They look in the mirror, see gray there and feel that it's a mistake."
There's a great mismatch in America, Morgan says: Society goes to great lengths to extend life, and yet, as more people grow older, it punishes the elderly for not having immortal youth.
Bernice Kanner writes on advertising and marketing from New York.