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Why We Feel Younger as We Get Older

Feeling young may help you live longer.

Key points

  • People's subjective age (how old they feel) is often younger than their chronological age.
  • Recent research indicates that the tendency for old people to feel younger has increased over time.
  • There are positive physical and mental health benefits associated with feeling younger than one's age.
Ruslan Huzau/Shutterstock
Source: Ruslan Huzau/Shutterstock

How old do you feel?

This sounds like a trick question, but it is not. The age that people report feeling, known as subjective age, is usually different from their actual chronological age.

A study in the U.K. revealed that 83 percent of people feel mentally younger than they are, with the average difference between actual mental age and subjective mental age being 12 years. Fifty-six percent also feel physically younger than they are—on average by about four years.

And it is at about age 40 when actual and subjective age really begins to diverge.

Have Older People Always Felt Younger?

When I was younger, I occasionally noticed that old people usually did not think of themselves as being “old.” For example, I clearly remember when my then almost 90-year-old aunt rebelled against suggestions that she start walking with a cane by protesting, “Canes are for old ladies!”

And now that I have gotten older myself, I note the frequency with which I hear my peers discuss their appearance and mental acuity in a self-congratulatory manner by observing how much younger they look and feel compared to their parents’ generation. I firmly believe that when they look in the mirror, most baby boomers see themselves as they looked 15 years ago rather than seeing themselves in real time, and that we truly believe that we are different from earlier generations.

But is this true? Do we baby boomers delude ourselves more about aging than previous generations did, or have older people always felt this way about themselves?

A new study published in the journal Psychological Science addressed this very question. The researchers studied 14,928 Germans (aged 40-85) who participated in the German Ageing Survey taken during seven different years over the past 30 years.

They found that people today do in fact feel younger than people in earlier cohorts, with people feeling on average about 2 percent younger for their age than individuals who were born 10 years earlier than them. This was true for each age cohort in the study. Higher levels of education and lower levels of loneliness were also associated with lower subjective age, and the difference between chronological age and subjective age increased as people got really old.

Perversely, this implies that you start to feel younger as you get older.

What Makes Us Start to Feel Old?

Not recognizing current celebrities, feeling out of touch with music and fashion, and simply no longer knowing what is hip and cool makes us feel older. On the other hand, things that make people feel younger include attending live events like concerts and spending time outdoors.

Surprisingly, worrying about the death of loved ones leads to feeling older more than worrying about one’s own death.

There are fascinating international health statistics that illustrate how 195 different countries and territories stack up when it comes to aging. Researchers have been able to determine the age at which individuals in each of these countries “feel” 65. Japan tops the list because Japanese 76-year-olds have the same level of age-related health problems as the world’s “average” person at age 65. Papua New Guinea is at the bottom of the pile, as 46-year-olds there have the health problems of globally average 65-year-olds. The U.S. placed 54th on this list, between Iran and Antigua and Barbuda.

The average American is 68.5 years old when he or she feels the age-related health problems of the average 65-year-old.

There Are Advantages to Feeling Younger

Subjective age is a function of your physical health, mental well-being, how you feel about your job, and a complicated web of other interacting variables. Consequently, it is difficult to ascertain any direct cause-effect relationship between subjective age and well-being.

Having said this, feeling young has been linked with living longer.

But feeling younger may only be beneficial within certain limits. If feeling young makes you skip medical visits, avoid vaccinations, and take other counterproductive risks, things may not work out so well.

More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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