Is it perception? Is it science? Actually, yes to both.

If you type “Paul Rudd Wilford Brimley” into Google Image, you’ll be met with dozens of side-by-side photos comparing Ant-Man star Paul Rudd and Cocoon actor Wilford Brimley when they were 51 years old. The contrast is striking. In his early 50s, Rudd could easily pass for a man a decade younger, while Brimley at 51 could be mistaken for someone in his 70s.

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Why is there such a marked discrepancy? As it turns out, there are myriad reasons. The most notable might be that, in the Rudd vs. Brimley comparison, the images of the latter were taken in 1985 during the filming of Cocoon.

Brimley, who passed away in 2020, was born in year 1934. Rudd, on the other hand, was born in 1969. Had the two shared a birth year, perhaps they would have looked more like peers in their early 50s. However, part of the reason people in the past look so much older than we do today, even at the same age, is because, biologically speaking, they were older.

People Are Aging More Slowly Than Ever

Paul Rudd in Only Murders in the Building Season 2 (2022)
Paul Rudd in Only Murders in the Building Season 2 (2022)

The average life expectancy of an American over the past 170 years has trended, dramatically, toward longer life. Looking at data compiled by Statista, average life expectancy in the United States was a mere 40 years in 1860. However, by the early 1900s, it had risen to 50. Fast-forward to the mid-1960s, the average had surpassed 70 years. Today, it’s 80.

To live longer, people had to live healthier. Much of that was due to improving medical-treatment options and a greater understanding of disease, aging and immunity. Diet had to improve was well. Another important factor was the reduction of harmful habits like smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol. Add to that the tendency to get more exercise and recreation. It’s also difficult to overstate the importance of preventive measures like wearing sun block and protective clothing have on health and appearance.

Paul Rudd and Wilford Brimley Weren’t the Same Biological Age

Wilfred Brimley in Cocoon (1985)
Wilfred Brimley in Cocoon (1985)

When you lead a healthier life than you predecessors, your body shows it. People today really do look younger than those of the same age from generations past. That’s because they are in better shape, right down to their very cells. Skin protected from sun damage ages more slowly.

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A body nourished with good foods doesn’t break down as quickly, with stronger bones and a better ability to heal and maintain itself. Simply put, the biological age of two people separated by many decades (say, Paul Rudd and Wilford Brimley) is likely not the same, even when the two were, in calendar years, the same age.

But biological age is not the only reason people in the past look older than we do today. Perception also plays a role. There could also be called bias at play.

Why Do People Look So Much Older in Photos from the Past?

Photo from Suzy Hazelwood, from Pexels

It’s not only photos. People from the past look older in movies, too. Even in audio recordings, people sounded older. Or did they? When it comes to the voices of people from the past, that “old-timey” sound has more to do with recording equipment than it does with their voices. Earlier generations of recording hardware couldn’t capture nearly as wide a range of frequencies as we can today. Thus, many overtones were lost, especially lower bass tones.

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Voices sound less rich and melodic have an almost awkward higher pitch that does, indeed, sound older and out of date. So, the guy announcing the horse race or the fellow reporting on the Hindenburg disaster? They didn’t actually sound like that.

But as for why people in “classic” photos and films look so much older? That’s likely, as we have discussed, because they were older, at least in biological terms. A poorer diet, more direct exposure to the sun, smoking, drinking and other factors may well have aged them. Another factor is that, despite being objectively less-healthy, people in past generations did tend to be trimmer on the whole. And a more slender face looks older than a plump face, while thinner bodies more prominently show bones, veins and the like, which can make someone appear older.

In the Battle of Brimley vs. Rudd, Cut Wilford Some Slack

Wilford Brimley in The Firm (1993)
Wilford Brimley in The Firm (1993)

Finally, consider this. Your mind is trained to associate black-and-white images, or grainy color, with age. If you see a photo of your grandfather at age 18 next to one of you at 18, he will likely look older. But now view that photo of yourself with a black-and-white filter (or a grainy color filter), and chances are you too will look older in the altered image.

Want to take things a step further? Colorize the image of the person from the past. He or she will suddenly seem younger. The same goes for the clothing. Fashion from, say, the 1950s is destined to look antiquated, even in a modern setting.

And one more note. While Wilford Brimley definitely looked older than Paul Rudd at 52, do note that the character he played in Cocoon was “aged up” with makeup so he could later appear younger, as required by the script. So, let’s give Wilford a break, Rudd’s seemingly eternal youth not withstanding.

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