Subjective Age

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cropped-graphic-e1423682891979.jpgVolume 12, Number 8

In the social and behavioral sciences, objective data often reveal the importance of subjective perceptions with respect to health. Perceptions of stressors have a profound impact on how much stress persons actually experience. Optimistic versus pessimistic outlooks are known to be associated with better health. Positive attitudes toward aging are associated with better health and longer lives.

As long as a precise birth date is known, a person’s age is one of the most objective numbers in the health arena. However, it is sometimes said “You are only as old as you feel” or “You are only as old as you think you are.” Interestingly, objective data are indicating that there is truth to these sayings.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2012 involved nearly 600 Connecticut residents aged 70 and older who had experienced at least one month of disability during a 10-year period after enrollment in the study. At baseline, participants had been asked the question, “When you think of old persons, what are the first 5 words or phrases that come to mind?” In this sample, persons with positive thoughts of aging were 44% more likely to recover from an episode of disability than were those with more negative age stereotypes.

In 2015, results of analyses of data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (United Kingdom) were published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Approximately 6500 individuals aged 52 years and older were asked in 2004-05, “How old do you feel you are?” The mean actual age was 65.8, whereas the mean self-perceived age was 56.8. When mortality data were analyzed 8 years later, self-perceived age predicted both all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. Even after considering the effects of baseline health, physical disability, and health behavior, those who felt older than their actual age were 41% more likely to have died in the study period.

Earlier this summer, analyses of data from three longitudinal studies in the United States were published in Health Psychology. Data were from the Midlife in the United States Survey (MIDUS), the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), and the National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS). Participants in these studies had been asked to state how old they felt. Hospitalizations among participants in these studies were tracked. Participants who felt subjectively older at baseline were more likely to be hospitalized, even after controlling for health status at baseline, age, sex, race, education, and depression.

Taken together, studies continue to find that subjective age (how old one feels) is a strong predictor of subsequent health. Thinking of oneself as younger than one’s chronological age appears to have health benefits.

How can a person feel younger? Perhaps the most obvious answer to this question is to keep moving, that is, to be physically active and fit. Not only does physical activity have demonstrable benefits for many of the systems of the human body, there are clear mental health benefits. It is also important to dispute negative stereotypes of aging and focus on accurate evidence, such as the finding that older people, on average, tend to be happier. It also makes sense to develop skills of resilience, which is being able to cope with stress, manage loss, and bounce back from adversity.


Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.

… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor of Family Medicine and Director of Behavioral Science for the Family Medicine Residency Program, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. His clinical practice includes psychotherapy, consultation, and coaching.




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