Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
June 5, 2024 ·  4 min read

Why Did People “Look Older” In The Past?

Have you ever noticed how young people in old photos always seemed to look older than people their same age today? This question comes up from time to time. Often you’ll hear people things like “I saw a picture of my grandparent when they were my age, they looked like way more of an adult than I do!” or something like that. Brandon McCarthy decided to find out if it was just him, or if young people in the past actually did look older than young people today. He tweeted about it, and what he received back was a flood of examples “proving” his hunch to be correct. The question is: Did humans actually used to look older? While there isn’t one simple answer, there are a few factors to consider. (1)

Did People Actually Look Older In The Past

I will be the first to admit here that I, too, have had this thought. For example, my mom has a picture hung up at her house of my grandmother when she was 18. My grandma was beautiful, but also, she looks way older than I think I did at 18. Not that she looks old, but just that she looks so much more mature, more adult, if you will. When I look back at photos of my own parents from when they were my age now, I also think they look “older” (aka, more like adults with responsibilities) than I do or feel now. Is this, however, because people actually looked older or aged faster, or is there another reason?

Firstly, it is important to note that life expectancy was much lower in the past than it is today. In the 1800s, for example, the average life expectancy in the United States was just less than 40 years. This means that people who lived to a ripe old age of 60 or 70 would have been considered exceptional. However, even if people were living to their 60s or 70s, they might have looked older than people the same age today. (2)

One reason for this is advancements in healthcare. We now have better access to medical care, healthier food options, and cleaner water. These factors help to slow down the aging process, so people look younger for longer. Additionally, we have a better understanding of how to take care of our skin and bodies, which can also have an impact on our appearance. For example, many more people in our grandparents and even parent’s day smoked, worked outside, didn’t wear sunscreen, and didn’t take care of their skin the way we tend to today. This will also have an impact.

The Style of Yesteryears

Another reason why people may have looked older in the past is due to fashion and styling. YouTuber Vsauce points out that people tend to stay dressing and styling themselves like they did in their 20s and 30s. As we associate these styles with “old,” it can skew our perception of age. However, if you were to put modern-day hairstyles, facial hair styles, makeup styles, and clothes on someone from an old photograph, they would likely look younger.

Think about it this way: If you look back at photos of your grandparents from when you were a baby, what do you notice? I notice that my grandparents (my grandmothers, in particular) wear their hair in the same style that they wore 30 years ago when I was born. That picture I mentioned of my grandmother when she was 18 also indicates the time period. Her hairstyle and clothes were very “in fashion” at that time. Today, they are considered old-fashioned. The only people we know who dress like that are currently mostly in their 80s and 90s.

Do People Age More Slowly Today?

Studies have looked at how quickly people biologically age and whether or not that has changed over time. What most studies have found is that it seems to be a very individualistic thing. Some people age slower biologically than what their age depicts. Others age more rapidly, while others seem to match up quite well. While genetics do play a role, lifestyle factors are what really ages a person. Exercise, nutrition, sleep habits, stress, sun exposure, medications, and so much more can either help to keep you young or age you rapidly. If you want to look and feel younger, you must take care of yourself. If you don’t, you’ll look older than you actually are. (3)

The Bottom Line

While there is some evidence to suggest that people age biologically slower today than they used to, the main reason why people in old photos looked older is a combination of factors. These include shorter life expectancies, advancements in healthcare, and fashion and styling. Truthfully, by the time your kids are teenagers, they will probably look back at your photos from your teens, twenties, and thirties and think that you, too, looked older than they did when you were both the same age. 

Keep Reading: Being Surrounded By Chronic Complainers Could Be Damaging Your Health

Sources

  1. Twitter
  2. Life expectancy (from birth) in the United States, from 1860 to 2020*.” Statista. Aaron O’Neill, June 21, 2022
  3. Is 60 the New 50? Examining Changes in Biological Age Over the Past Two Decades.” NCBI. Morgan E. Levine and Eileen M. Crimmins. April 2019.