We all know them. The octogenarians running marathons or the 60-somethings about to retrain for career number three because, y’know, there’s room in their day for a little side hustle. You’re only as old as you feel, or so the saying goes – and increasingly, science is finding the evidence to prove it.
Age is just a number
Health experts are particularly interested in how our ‘subjective’ age – that is, the age we feel inside rather than the one dictated by our birth certificate – affects not just our physical health but also our mental wellbeing. In one major study, Professor Yannick Stephan, a researcher into subjective age and health at the University of Montpellier, examined the data from three studies, encompassing some 17,000 participants in total. Most felt around 15 to 16% younger than their chronological age, a mindset that happily predisposed them to better overall health and longevity.
However, it appears that the converse is also true: in those people who felt older than their years, researchers found something remarkable. Those feeling eight, 11 and 13 years older than their chronological age had an 18, 29 and 25% increased risk of death respectively, prompting the research team to conclude that ‘the study provides robust evidence for an association between an older subjective age and a higher risk of mortality across adulthood.’ In other words, the older people felt, the more likely they were to die – an argument for taking a bit of creative licence with the old DOB if ever there was one.
Creating a virtuous circle
But how does it work? Well, it appears to be something of a three-pronged approach, and the first is reasonably straightforward. Someone with a youthful outlook is more likely to make healthier lifestyle choices, such as eating a well-balanced diet, taking regular exercise, attending regular medical or screening appointments and keeping up social contact. These are all positive behaviours that create a virtuous circle – the more you do them, the better you feel, and so it goes on. Indeed, Prof Yannick on BBC Future said that: “Subjective age is predictive of physical activity patterns”, which is another way of saying that you’re less likely to talk yourself out of the Three Peaks Challenge if you feel 45 rather than 65.
Another very important aspect – and this is where a younger outlook helps keep us young in both mind as well as in body – are the personality differences that occur depending on whether you consider yourself to be older or younger than you really are. Those who think themselves younger are more likely to accept the challenges of becoming older, resulting in better physical health and cognitive function. At the same time, they develop resilience (or what researchers call a ’self-protective strategy’) to the effects of and stereotypes around ageing. Collectively, these create a toolbox of self-preserving mechanisms that appear to be protective against cognitive decline and depression.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that this works both ways. For someone with low mood, depression, or who is worried about increasing forgetfulness or physical illness or frailty, it’s easy to see how they might start ‘feel old’. And this particular mindset is characterised by increased anxiety and unwillingness to keep an open or curious mind – in other words, to adopt attitudes stereotypically associated with ageing.
How old do you feel?
Scientists are only just beginning to uncover the broader implications of ‘subjective ageing’, but given that is appears to be a powerful tool in helping to predict health outcomes, Professor Stephan believes that asking patients how old they feel may help identify those who need more support.
“From a practical perspective, an assessment of subjective age may prove useful to identify individuals who may benefit from an intervention,” he says in his research paper.
“Interventions that reduce risk of declines in physical and mental health that ultimately lead to better health and wellbeing and longer survival could be targeted toward individuals with an older subjective age. For example, physical activity programs may be particularly beneficial among individuals with an older subjective age because it may promote overall physical, cognitive, and mental health, resulting in lower mortality risk”.