WASHINGTON — Have you ever heard the expression, “you’re only as old as you feel?” A new study finds that may actually be true! Researchers in Germany report older adults who say they “feel younger” than their actual age show less signs of stress-related aging than their peers.
Their findings reveal adults with a youthful outlook displayed stronger cognitive abilities, less inflammation, fewer risks for hospitalization, and even lived longer in comparison to other adults who “feel old.” Researchers add this supports the theory that someone’s subjective age provides tangible benefits for their health and protects against stress.
“Generally, we know that functional health declines with advancing age, but we also know that these age-related functional health trajectories are remarkably varied. As a result, some individuals enter old age and very old age with quite good and intact health resources, whereas others experience a pronounced decline in functional health, which might even result in need for long-term care,” explains study lead author Markus Wettstein, PhD, from the University of Heidelberg, in a media release.
“Our findings support the role of stress as a risk factor for functional health decline, particularly among older individuals, as well as the health-supporting and stress-buffering role of a younger subjective age.”
The damage of stress gets worse as you age
Study authors from the German Center of Gerontology studied three years of data collected from over 5,000 participants in the German Aging Survey. The survey, interviewing adults all over age 40, included questions measuring each person’s perceived levels of stress and their functional health. Researchers asked participants about how their health limits daily activities such as walking, dressing, and even bathing. The group also revealed what their subjective ages were, through questions like, “how old do you feel?”
Results show stress appears to be a major factor in how fast a person’s health declines. Those reporting more stress in their lives experienced sharper declines in their functional health over the three-year period. Moreover, the effects of stress grew even worse among older participants.
While chronological age may negatively impact the effects of stress, results also show subjective age defends against it. Adults reporting they feel younger than their actual age displayed weaker links between stress and declining health. In fact, older participants with this youthful outlook experienced more protective benefits than others.
Embracing older adults may help them live longer
Study authors say their findings point to possible strategies aimed at helping adults “feel” younger, and therefore live longer. Among those include messaging campaigns to counter ageism and negative stereotypes about the elderly. Also, Wettstein says there needs to be more stress-reduction interventions and stress management training available to older adults.
Researchers add they still need to do more work to figure out the ideal gap between a person’s subjective and chronological age. While it may sound great to “feel like a kid” again, studies point to the benefits of subjective age only going so far.
“Feeling younger to some extent might be adaptive for functional health outcomes, whereas ‘feeling too young’ might be less adaptive or even maladaptive,” Wettstein concludes.
The study appears in the journal Psychology and Aging.