Why Did People Look Older? Is This Actually a Thing?

If you’ve spent any time browsing memes on the internet, you’re probably aware of this whole “people used to look older” thing. You know, when people put a picture of some famous person from when they were like 13 but they look 25? Maybe you experienced this feeling personally, outside of internet posts, when you looked at old family photos. It’s such an odd phenomenon, which when said aloud doesn’t really sound like it should be a real thing. But is this actually a real thing? Why did people look older?

Is 60 the New 50?

Before we get into the more sophisticated things behind why people used to look older, we are generally healthier now than we used to be. For example, smoking can make your skin look more aged and the ubiquity of smoking in the US has decreased substantially (and continues to decrease). More importantly, the advent of sunscreen is doing some hard-carrying in keeping us looking more youthful over time. 

We also are actually aging slower than our parents. A lot of that is owed to changes in lifestyle general improvements to healthcare for those with access to it. A study published in 2019 separated one’s biological and chronological ages, then measured them against differing generations. Your chronological age is pretty self-explanatory—it’s how long you’ve been alive. Biological age is a measure of how old your body is; it’s based on cognitive changes, how well your body is functioning, how much cholesterol you have, how high your blood pressure is—stuff like that. Smoking and obesity, for example, were (perhaps expectedly) found to be strong factors in increasing one’s biological age. 

Broadly, the study found that biological age in the US has been decreasing over the last 20 years. So there is a little bit of biology behind the meme; we are aging a bit slower. But not by much, 60 isn’t the new 50. They found it was more like the new 60 was 56. 

There’s a lot of perspective too

But the difference between 60 and 56 is like… 6%. That doesn’t seem like enough to make this such a common question. For starters, it’s probably useful to keep in the back of our minds that people never have or will age the same way. So depending on your metrics, you could be comparing apples to oranges. Heck, even different parts of our own bodies age differently from each other. 

There’s a lot of perspective to this too. Primary or high school is probably a good example of this, since most people are either getting taller real quickly or hitting puberty around that time. But really, you can apply this to any life milestone. A first-year in high school probably looks like a toddler to you now, and might even have looked like a toddler when you were a senior in high school. When you were a first-year in high school, those seniors probably looked like grown-ups to you, until you yourself became a senior and found that everyone in your cohort kind of looked the same since you all aged together. 

Take that feeling where you were in high school and thought all the seniors were super put together. Then you became a senior and realized you are absolutely not put together. Maybe you got that feeling too when you graduated college, if you attended an undergraduate institution. It also applies to how you view people’s apparent ages, because while you’re always seeing yourself as you are now, you probably still remember those seniors or undergrads as older than you, despite having now hit the same life-milestones. 


The way we dress and style ourselves also changes over time, typically it changes faster than we do. You’ve probably rotated between and settled on a few standard “looks” a couple times in your life by now. 

Eventually, though, these fashion choices become associated with “old people.” This, obviously, has an affect on your apparent age. “Dressing like an old person” wouldn’t be a concept otherwise, and it’s why it’s possible to date vintage photos by fashion. This also colors our perspective when we look at pictures of old-people-when-they-were-young. You could probably throw some set dressing and a sepia filter on a photo of you now and increase your apparent age. Here’s a series of photos recreating old-fashioned photography but including random modern elements like iPhones, the anachronism might affect how you view the apparent age of the photo (or at least throw off your ability to pin it down). 

Long short, people in old pictures look older because they dressed and styled themselves like old people do now. Look at how the apparent ages of the Golden Girls change when just their hairstyles are edited. 

Sliced bread is pretty old. Do you know what’s older? Well if you do you can flex that here.