Age Identity

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Volume 17, Number 6

June 2021

How old do you feel? This is the most common question used to assess subjective age, as distinct from chronological age. Feeling younger than one’s actual age has been associated with better physical health and greater life expectancy. More specifically, a younger “felt age” has been linked to less systemic inflammation, less risk for hospitalization, healthier behaviors, and better cognitive function. There have been studies indicating that the relationships between subjective age and health get stronger as persons get older. Age identity matters.

Several investigators from the German Centre of Gerontology recently published a paper in Psychology and Aging in which they reported data from over 5000 participants in the ongoing German Ageing Survey. In addition to subjective health, measures of functional health (i.e., the extent to which activities are limited by one’s health) and perceived stress were obtained in 2014 and 2017. Not surprisingly, higher perceived stress was associated with poorer functional health, an association that was stronger with advancing age. But importantly, feeling younger was associated with less decline in functional health among persons reporting greater perceived stress.

Certainly, many sources of stress are outside a person’s control. But perceptions of stressors and of one’s resources for coping affect the impact of stress on an individual. And it appears that having a younger felt age serves as an additional protective factor from the harmful impacts of stress. Furthermore, this benefit of having a younger subjective age appears to increase in importance with advancing age.

These investigators acknowledge than an “ideal discrepancy” between actual and subjective age isn’t known and that an unrealistic or illusory discrepancy may be harmful. It also isn’t clear whether interventions to train people to have a younger subjective age can promote the benefits found in their study, although one interesting study found that handgrip strength improved after participants received positive feedback about their initial performance relative to age peers (and they reportedly felt younger after the feedback). There have been other studies indicating that persons can be taught to have more positive perceptions of aging.

What age do you feel? Hopefully your answer to this question is younger than your chronological age, and that this perception continues in the years ahead.

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