How about

# pattern is by finding a set of numbers in the start and capturing them
as.numeric(gsub("([0-9]+).*$", "\\1", years))

or

# pattern is to just remove _years_old
as.numeric(gsub(" years old", "", years))

or

# split by space, get the element in first index
as.numeric(sapply(strsplit(years, " "), "[[", 1))