Reconceptualizing the study of population aging

Age is not just the number of years one has lived, argue IIASA population researchers. A new study from the group provides a set of tools for measuring age in all its dimensions.

A groundbreaking study published in the journal Population and Development Review by IIASA population researchers Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov reorients the way demographers study population aging, providing a new toolbox of methodologies for demographers to better understand the impacts of an aging population on society. 

Previously, studies of aging used only one characteristic of people, their chronological age. The new study provides a framework for measuring aging based instead on characteristics of people that change with age, including life expectancy, health, cognitive function, and other measures. These measures can be used by demographers to better understanding aging societies.

“Your true age is not just the number of years you have lived,” says IIASA researcher Sergei Scherbov. “It also includes characteristics such as health, cognitive function, and disability rates.”

Demographers have not traditionally used such measures in studies of population and society, instead using age as a proxy for those characteristics. But as lifespans get longer, the same age no longer correlates with the same level of health and other such characteristics.

“We use to consider people old at age 65,” says Scherbov. “Today, someone who is 65 may be more like someone who was 55 forty-fifty years ago in terms of many important aspects of their lives.”

Reconceptualizing the study of population aging The authors show that policy recommendations with respect to aging differ depending on exactly which characteristics of people are measured. “For different purposes we need different measures. Aging is multidimensional,” says Scherbov. By reconceptualizing population aging to incorporate how people actually function, the study provides the foundation of a much richer and more realistic view of population aging.

Scherbov recently won an advanced grant from the European Research Council to study this topic together with his colleagues.

IIASA demographer Sergei Scherbov has won an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council to explore population aging and its impacts on Europe and beyond.
The grant, which goes to IIASA’s World Population Program, is 4th ERC grant at IIASA and the 6th ERC grant won by a researcher at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital – more than any other European research group of a comparable size. The Wittgenstein Centre is a collaboration between IIASA, the Vienna Institute of Demography, and the Vienna University of Economics and Business.

They say that 40 is the new 30. That is truer than people know, says Scherbov, who also holds appointments at the Vienna Institute of Demography and the Wittgenstein Centre. “We should not consider someone who is 60 or 65 to be an older person,” says Scherbov. “People now are much healthier and much ‘younger’ than people were at the same age in previous generations.”

In Europe and other developed regions of the world, life expectancy has increased significantly in recent decades, and continues to increase. As people live longer, they also stay healthier longer. But traditional measures of age have not changed, and therefore a growing section of the population gets categorized as old just because they have hit the magic age of 65. This somewhat arbitrary measure has major implications for pensions, for health care systems, and for the labor force.

Under the new ERC grant, Scherbov and colleagues will develop new ways to measure aging that more accurately represent the real world. These new metrics for the first time include factors like life expectancy, health, disability, cognition, and ability to work – measures that explain how people live and what they need, not just the number of years they have lived.

Reconceptualizing the study of population aging Reference: Sanderson, W. C. and Scherbov, S. (2013), The Characteristics Approach to the Measurement of Population Aging. Population and Development Review, 39: 673–685. doi: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2013.00633.x


Serguei Scherbov
Deputy Program Leader World Population
T +43(0) 2236 807 584
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Warren Sanderson
Institute Scholar World Population
T +43(0) 2236 807 252
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