Why Did People “Look Older” in the Past?


Have you ever looked through old family photo albums or watched vintage TV shows and wondered why young people back then looked like they were worried about mortgages and pensions?

It’s a common thought, and there’s actually some truth behind it.

Let’s dive into why people seemed to “look older” in the past.

Factors Affecting Aging

Selection Bias: Not everyone ages at the same rate, so part of this perception comes from how we remember the past.

People who aged faster or had more rugged appearances might be overrepresented in old photos and media, skewing our perception.

Standards of Living: Better living conditions, healthcare, and lifestyle choices have significantly impacted aging, especially in more affluent parts of the world.

Over the past few decades, these improvements have become quite noticeable.

For instance, fewer physically demanding jobs, better nutrition, and advances in medical care have all contributed to a more youthful appearance.

Biological Aging

A 2018 study examined changes in biological aging using markers like blood pressure and lung function between 1988 and 2010.

The findings showed that people today are biologically “younger” than those of previous generations.

Key points from the study:

  • Both Men and Women: Across all ages, there was a decrease in biological age, meaning people now show fewer signs of aging at the same chronological age compared to the past.
  • Young Males: They experienced greater improvements in biological age compared to young females, likely due to reduced smoking rates and better health practices.
  • Older Adults: They saw more significant improvements than younger adults, possibly because of better healthcare access and lifestyle changes accumulated over time.
  • Lifestyle Factors: Reduced smoking and improved medication use contributed significantly to these changes.

As men started smoking less and women caught up, the biological age gap between genders narrowed.

Unaccounted Factors: The study also suggested that improvements in early-life and prenatal conditions, along with reductions in infectious diseases, might play a role in why people today are biologically younger.

Our Perception of Age

Fashion and Style: Our biases about old fashions play a significant role.

We associate certain looks with being old because the people who wore those styles aged.

For example, when we see photos of young people from the past wearing outdated styles, we automatically think they look older.

This association is reinforced by seeing older individuals in similar styles over time.

Media Representations: Media often portray characters in a way that can skew our perception of age.

For instance, looking up “Sonny from Grease” reveals how certain characters were styled to look much older than their actual age.

This creates a lasting impression that people in the past looked older.

Dental Care and Sunscreen: Advances in dental care and the use of sunscreen have also contributed to people looking younger today.

Better dental care results in healthier, more attractive smiles, while sunscreen protects the skin from premature aging caused by UV exposure.


While better standards of living and healthcare have made modern generations biologically younger, our perception of people from the past looking older is also influenced by fashion and media biases.

Improvements in dental care and sunscreen use also help us look younger today.

So, when you see those old photos, remember that a mix of better living conditions and our own biases is at play.

Understanding these factors gives us a clearer picture of why people in the past appeared older and highlights the benefits of modern advances in health and lifestyle.