It is increasingly recognised that the elderly represent a very large sector of the population and world demographic trends show that the percentage is constantly rising. According to the World Health Organization, in the year 2.000 the over 65's will make up 6.3% of the world's popula- tion, but in Europe they will account for 14.3% and in Italy, in particular, they will represent 16.4% of the population. But what does being old mean ? What are the main problems that the elderly have to face ? Does old age have common features and implications across borders ? These are the questions that the paper will tackle by showing the results of an international survey carried out on behalf of the Japanese Government in 5 countries, namely, Japan, Thailand, United States, Denmark and Italy. The study, completed at the end of 1986 and carried out with an overall sample of 5.200 individuals aged 60 and above, shows that the profile of the elderly differs consistently within the 5 countries considered. This suggests that the foundation for the Third Age are laid in the First and Second Age. Being old, as a category, is not in itself a unifying element among the elderly living in different countries: it is much more national culture and social pressures that influence the attitudes, the character's traits and the behaviour of old people.