Here’s what we want you to do: close your eyes for a moment and try to forget how old the calendar says you are, then think about how old you feel. Is every joint and bone aching and creaking, making you feel your age or even older – or do you feel a whole lot younger than the age on your driver’s license? If so, you’re not alone, and you might be in for a pleasant surprise: you probably are healthier than people who feel their age, and you’re more likely to stay that way as you get older. So does that mean it’s true that you’re only as old as you feel?
Chronological Age Vs. Biological Age Vs. Subjective Age
We won’t ask you how old you are – that wouldn’t be polite – but whatever your answer would be if we did ask you is known as your chronological age. That number, though, doesn’t usually tell the whole story about your physical, or even your psychological, health: there are factors other than the year that you were born that determine how old you might really be on the inside.
For example, have you ever noticed that some people in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s look a lot younger than their chronological age? Scientists have actually studied these differences in people of similar ages, by looking at age-related biomarkers, which are things like skin elasticity, blood pressure, lung capacity and grip strength. It turns out that people with a healthy lifestyle and living conditions, as well as good genes, tend to score “younger” on these assessments and are said to have a lower “biological age.”
But there’s one more way of figuring out how healthy and fit you are, and whether you might stay healthy and fit as you age: simply asking you how old you feel. Yes, that’s right: scientists are becoming more and more interested in your “subjective age,” asking the question “How old do you feel, most of the time?” According to Antonio Terracciano, a professor of geriatrics at Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee, “This simple question seems to be particularly powerful.”
So what can the answer to that simple question predict for your health as you age?
What Does Your Subjective Age Say About You?
Feeling younger than your chronological age is actually really common, especially as you get older. In fact, by age 30, around 70% of people feel younger than their age, and around 80% of people over 40 say they feel younger than their age, while only about 10% say they feel older. Most people tend to feel about 8 years younger than the age on their birth certificate, although that’s an average, and the difference can fluctuate as you age: at age 50, people often feel about five years, or 10%, younger, but by the time they’re 70 they may feel 15% or even 20% younger.
And while researchers are still trying to figure out why this discrepancy between chronology and subjectivity is so common and pronounced, it seems pretty clear that having a lower subjective age is beneficial. Consider this: in studies, those who felt between 8 and 13 years older than their actual age had an 18-25% greater risk of death over the study periods, and were more likely to suffer from various diseases, even when you control for other demographic factors such as education, race, or marital status.
Researchers aren’t sure what the actual cause and effect is when it comes to good health and subjective age: for example, does good health make you feel younger? Or does feeling younger bring good health? Or is it merely that we value youth so much in our culture that we psychologically reject feeling older? Whatever the case, it does seem that asking about subjective age can help predict who is most at risk for health problems, and feeling older and getting unhealthier can be a vicious cycle, with psychological and physical factors both contributing to a higher subjective age and worse health, which can make you feel even older and more vulnerable.
On the other hand, feeling younger seems to have some serious advantages. People who feel younger than their chronological age:
- Are typically healthier, reporting fewer chronic conditions and taking fewer medications, and are more psychologically resilient than those who feel older.
- Visit the doctor less often.
- Are more likely to maintain a healthy weight.
- Perform better on memory tasks and are at lower risk of cognitive decline.
- Had thicker brain matter and had endured less age-related deterioration, according to a 2018 South Korean study.
- Are at less risk for hospitalization, dementia and death.
Not only that, but there are also studies that suggest that a youthful frame of mind can have a powerful effect. Two separate studies have found that participants who were told that they were stronger or sharper than other people their age performed better on tests of their grip strength and memory.
Find What Makes YOU Feel Young
While not many doctors are currently asking the question, “How old do you feel?” at regular checkups, and many might not feel comfortable prescribing simply “think young” to their patients, it’s probably a good idea to think about how you can reduce your subjective age to keep you feeling healthier for longer. But that’s a tough one, because what makes someone feel younger can look different for everyone. But there are few things that seem helpful, and that you can try focusing on:
- Get more exercise – Older adults who walked faster rated their subjective age as younger than those who walked more slowly, and people who were more involved in physical activity during their leisure time rated their subjective age as younger and their memory as stronger.
- Pick up where you left off – Is there an activity that you loved when you are younger that you would enjoy now?
- Prioritize your days – You might not be able to tackle endless to-do lists these days, so set attainable goals and decide how you really want to spend your energy – you might be better served by doing something you really enjoy, like connecting with family and friends, than scrubbing the floor!
- Take assistance when you need it – Do you feel like getting a device like a hearing aid would just make you feel older? The opposite might just be true, because anything that improves your quality of life, and allows you to connect more with others, can help you feel younger.
- Talk to your peers – Ok, we’re not saying you have to challenge anyone to a push-up contest, but it might help to talk to others in your age group and know that the changes you’re experiencing are totally normal (and you might just be able to have a good laugh about it, which can also make you feel younger!).
- Practice mindfulness – In one study, long-term meditators who practiced mindfulness for at least five years showed a progressively slower rate of epigenetic aging (or the difference between chronological age and biological aging) compared to those who did not meditate regularly.
Ultimately, your chronological age is really no big deal, and you should never feel embarrassed by the number of candles on your cake or hide the number of years and decades that have ticked by, increasing your wisdom and, most likely, bringing you greater peace and satisfaction with your life. But that doesn’t mean that you have to feel old. So the next time someone asks how old you are, stop for a moment, think about it, and simply answer: “You’re only as old as you feel,” and get back to living your healthiest, most fulfilling life, no matter what the calendar says.