Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society

Studying Aging Populations

An older woman with white hair and glasses is shown looking out a window, across a body of water.
How old is this woman? In modern U.S. society, appearance is not a reliable indicator of age. In addition to genetic differences, health habits, hair dyes, Botox, and the like make traditional signs of aging increasingly unreliable. (Photo courtesy of the Sean and Lauren Spectacular/flickr)

Since its creation in 1790, the U.S. Census Bureau has been tracking age in the population. Age is an important factor to analyze with accompanying demographic figures, such as income and health. The population pyramid below shows projected age distribution patterns for the next several decades.

A population pyramid depicting the U.S. age distribution of 2010, and projecting the age distribution o f the U.S. in the years 2030 and 2050.
This population pyramid shows the age distribution pattern for 2010 and projected patterns for 2030 and 2050 (Graph courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau).

Statisticians use data to calculate the median age of a population, that is, the number that marks the halfway point in a group’s age range. In the United States, the median age is about forty (U.S. Census Bureau 2010). That means that about half of the people in the United States are under forty and about half are over forty. This median age has been increasing, which indicates the population as a whole is growing older.

A cohort is a group of people who share a statistical or demographic trait. People belonging to the same age cohort were born in the same time frame. Understanding a population’s age composition can point to certain social and cultural factors and help governments and societies plan for future social and economic challenges.

Sociological studies on aging might help explain the difference between Native American age cohorts and the general population. While Native American societies have a strong tradition of revering their elders, they also have a lower life expectancy because of lack of access to healthcare and high levels of mercury in fish, which is a traditional part of their diet.

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