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Time to rethink what "old" is

NEW YORK (Steve Vernon/ CBS MoneyWatch) -- Through much of my life, "old" has been someone who's about 20 years older than me. If I continue applying this definition, in the not-to-distant future, old will be someone who's most certainly dead. So, I need to rethink my definition of old.

First, let's look at some statistics that give us new insights on recent improvements in longevity. Then let's look beyond the numbers to see how we really feel about age and "oldness."

Many people think of age in chronological terms -- as in the number of years lived. To them, someone is old when they've reached an advanced age, such as 65, 75 or 85. However, instead of looking at age as the number of years you've lived, why not think about it with respect to the numbers of years you have remaining?

With this in mind, actuaries and demographers might define "old" as someone who's reached their life expectancy from birth using the mortality rates currently prevailing in the population, rather than relying on arbitrary age milestones. According to a report from the Stanford Center on Longevity, in 1950, life expectancy at birth was age 66 for a man and 71 for a woman. So, back then those ages might have been considered old.

By 2010, however, life expectancy at birth had increased to 75 for a man and 80 for a woman, so "old" increased by nine years. The graph below shows that by 2050, old might be pushed back another five to 12 years, depending on the forecast you believe.

Another definition of old could be whether you have a high risk of dying in a given year. Using this definition, the same Stanford report contains an interesting graph that suggests age 75 is the new 68. In 1950, for instance, a 68-year-old man had a risk of dying in the next year of about one in 25, or 4 percent. By 2010, a man had to be age 75 to have that same 4 percent chance of dying. If mortality improvement trends continue, by 2050, a 78-year-old man might have a 4 percent chance of dying in the next year.

But enough about numbers. Maybe you think people are old by the way they look. Do they have gray hair, wrinkled skin or wear clothes that look frumpy or outdated? That kind of definition of old is tricky these days, though, because cutting-edge cosmetics and plastic surgery can make you look much younger than your years, and you can always keep your wardrobe current.

You could also define old as a state of mind.

Maybe old is someone who's no longer contributing to society by working, volunteering, helping with family or making a difference in other useful ways. Old could be someone who's no longer interested in learning new things. Or it could be someone who doesn't enjoy other people's company, or someone who's cranky and doesn't laugh or smile very often. Old could be someone who just watches TV or sits on the porch all day. Old could be someone who doesn't make any plans for the future.

Or maybe old is simply whether you don't still think you're young. Or maybe you'll just think it's not too bad to be old.

Recall the famous saying from the late comedian George Burns: "At my age, I don't even buy green bananas." Maybe that's your new definition of old!

No matter which definition you adhere to, it turns out you may have a lot of influence over whether you feel young or old.

(c) 2014 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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