Not long ago, Stephanie Heller, a New Jersey realtor, was leaving her gym after a workout when she noticed a woman in the parking lot struggling to bend down. “I don’t know if she dropped something and had to pick it up, or if her shoe was untied,” Heller said, but she eagerly bounded over to help. The woman blamed old age for her incapacity, explaining that she was 70. But Heller was 71.
“This woman felt every bit her age,” she recalled. “I don’t let age stop me. I think it’s a mind-set, really.”
Each of us has a chronological age, the number we commemorate on birthdays. But some 50-, 60- and 70-year-olds look and feel youthful, while others do not. Scientists can measure these differences by looking at age-related biomarkers — things like skin elasticity, blood pressure, lung capacity and grip strength. People with a healthy lifestyle and living conditions and a fortunate genetic inheritance tend to score “younger” on these assessments and are said to have a lower “biological age.”
But there’s a much easier way to determine the shape people are in. It’s called “subjective age.” When scientists ask: “How old do you feel, most of the time?” the answer tends to reflect the state of people’s physical and mental health. “This simple question seems to be particularly powerful,” says Antonio Terracciano, a professor of geriatrics at Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee.
Scientists are finding that people who feel younger than their chronological age are typically healthier and more psychologically resilient than those who feel older. They perform better on memory tasks and are at lower risk of cognitive decline. In a study published in 2018, a team of South Korean researchers scanned the brains of 68 healthy older adults and found that those who felt younger than their age had thicker brain matter and had endured less age-related deterioration. By contrast, people who feel older than their chronological age are more at risk for hospitalisation,
dementia and death.
“We have found many, many predictive associations,” says Yannick Stephan, an assistant professor of health and aging psychology at the University of Montpellier in France who has been at the forefront of subjective age research.
If you’re over 40, chances are you feel younger than your driver’s license suggests. Some 80 per cent of people do, according to Stephan. A small fraction of people — fewer than 10 per cent — feel older. The discrepancy between felt and actual age increases with the years, Terracciano said. At age 50, people may feel about five years, or 10 per cent, younger, but by the time they’re 70 they may feel 15 per cent or even 20 per cent younger.
Most of the research on subjective age is based on associations between how old people feel and their health status, so it cannot establish cause and effect. It’s not clear, for example, whether feeling younger actually makes people healthier, or whether people who are already healthy tend to feel younger. But by simply asking people how old they feel, Stephan says, doctors might be able to identify who is most at risk for health problems.
For Francisca Mercado-Ruiz of South Plainfield, NJ, getting healthier transformed her internal sense of age. In the months leading up to her 49th birthday last December, she fulfilled her goal of losing 49 pounds. Before the weight loss, she had back and hip pain and felt like she was 65. Now she’s off her blood pressure medication, full of energy, has few aches and says she feels 35.
Some intriguing studies suggest that a youthful frame of mind can have a powerful effect. When scientists trick older people into feeling younger, most tend to instantly become more capable. In a 2013 experiment by Stephan and colleagues, people’s grip strength significantly improved after they were told that they were stronger than most people their age.
© 2019 The New York Times News Service