Successful Aging: How you feel about your age can affect your health
Q. I am a 75-year-old woman and do not feel my age. I have read there are some benefits to feeling younger. Could you comment on this? Many thanks. N.S
We continue to look for the fountain of youth with lotions, potions, procedures, surgeries and more. Yet the clock moves ahead each year as our chronological age proceeds in a predictable manner. There is another way to think about aging that is less predictable. It’s called subjective aging; that is how old you feel.
Our subjective age may mean more than our chronological age, according to BBC digital column “The 100 Year Life.” How we feel about our own aging can affect one’s physical and mental health and even longevity.
Here is some of what we know:
Subjective age: According to a survey by OnePoll, the average person feels seven years younger than the chronological age. Another survey from Denmark found adults over the age of 40 judged themselves to be 20 percent younger than their chronological age. That means an 80-year-old would think of him or herself as age 64. Then there is the philosopher and financier Bernard Baruch who is quoted as saying on his 86th birthday, “To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am.”
Shared characteristics: People who feel younger than their chronological age share some common characteristics according to a German study of over 5,000 participants. They had a higher sense of well-being, better cognitive and brain functioning and favorable physical health. They also had a better standard of living, a more positive attitude towards aging and were less depressed. In the same study, those with a younger subjective age had a buffer to stress with health benefits that increased with their age.
Geography matters: In a review of almost 300 studies from across the globe, the discrepancy between chronological and subjective age depended on where you lived. That difference or discrepancy was greatest in the U.S., Western Europe and Australia/Oceania. Asia has a smaller gap. Africa has the smallest gap which might be cultural since elders in collective societies typically are more respected.
Subjective aging, personality and mortality: In some cases as people get older, they have a tendency to become mellower and introverted and often less open to new experiences. That’s not the case with those considered “young at heart,” according to the BBC 100-Year Life report. Such changes in personality were less pronounced for those with younger subjective ages. Furthermore, those young at heart folks experienced better physical health, less risk of dementia and being hospitalized for illness. Finally, subjective age was more related to mortality than chronological age.
Tips to embrace your age
“Strive to do what you love for as long as you can do it,” writes Jane Brody, health writer at the New York Times on turning 80.
“Don’t discard an idea because you think you’re too old to consider it. Challenge your limited thinking,” writes psychologist Francine Toder, emeritus faculty member, at California State University, Sacramento.
“Take care of yourself, get some reasonable sleep, don’t get overcome by stress and have a good diet,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci in an interview with Jane Brody.
Be aware of how age biases are influencing your decisions and activities. With good judgment, ignore those who consider you “too old”, that “it cannot be done” or “we’ve always done it this way.” (Skiing at age 92 may not be a good idea.)
Perhaps American attitudes play a role in needing to perceive ourselves as younger. Age often gets a bum rap and too often is equated with forgetfulness, weakness and decline, according to Becca Levy, professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health. Levy shared her experience visiting Tokyo as a graduate student. As referenced in her book, “Breaking the Age Code,” (2022, William Morrow,) people lived longer and had a more positive attitude towards aging. She observed stories in newsstands about older people falling in love, saw crowds in their 70s and 80s lifting weights in the park and noticed music classes with 75-year old’s learning to play the electric slide guitar for the first time. Perhaps in Japan, it’s not necessary to feel younger.
Here are some takeaways: Know that subjective age effects one’s physical and mental health. Embrace the years you have lived. And you are as old as you feel, except when getting senior discounts!
Thank you, N.S. for your good question. Stay well and know kindness is everything.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity