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Aging

Can the Way You Feel About Aging Affect How You Age?

New study shows age isn't just a number; it’s how you feel about that number.

Key points

  • People often let themselves be defined by the calendar instead of how they feel about the way they're aging internally.
  • New research examines aging from a more realistic gains-vs.-losses perspective along with its role in mental health.
  • By taking a simple test, you can start to gain a more positive spin on the ways you've changed—and improved—over time.

It’s a popular saying that “Age is just a number, and mine is unlisted.” It's even appeared in advertisements. Although this saying unfortunately has the connotation that age is something to be ashamed about, the idea that “age is just a number” may have some validity, according to the latest research on predictors of the way people feel about how their internal clock processes the days, weeks, and years.

Perhaps you’ve had a recent experience in which someone asks you how old you are, and you actually have to stop and think before you come up with the right number. Or, you might prefer not to give any answer at all. Unless it’s a health professional’s office, what business is it of anyone else?

Refusing to define yourself on the basis of age might be a healthy, adaptive response in a society and culture that so readily denigrates people based on generational labels. The “boomers” have a host of negative associations attached to the members of their generation, but so do the millennials. Implicit in those generational designations is the underlying notion that age isn’t just a number; it’s the most important feature that defines who you are.

The Many Factors That Can Affect Perceived Age

The idea of “subjective age” (the age you feel you are) goes back a number of decades in research on mental health and aging. University of Exeter’s Serena Sabitini and colleagues (2022) moved our understanding of this idea considerably further in their recent work, examining how people’s feelings about age across a 20-year span into later adulthood change in response to the contributions of changes in their cognitive functioning, physical health, and mental health.

Citing prior research, Sabatini et al. note, simply, that “Self-perceptions of aging (SPA) are important for successful aging." However, the question is why these self-perceptions are so important. Is it because people in better health just feel younger? Is it because their cognitive functioning is objectively better? Are they just less depressed? Prior research took a somewhat simplistic approach to measuring SPA, and it also tended to cover only a short period of time, preventing “investigators from digging deeper into the identification of relevant predictors and their differential impact on SPA." In other words, it’s not enough to establish a short-term correlation between SPA at one point and other potential contributors at the same time. You need to follow up with the same people over time to be able to single out which aspects of an individual’s functioning could contribute to their feeling younger or older than their actual age.

It's also important, the U. Exeter-led team note, to pay attention to the role of cognition, not just the individual’s mood or even physical health status. Think about all the times you’ve used the phrase “I’m having a senior moment.” Was it because you couldn’t find something? Did you forget a name? Apart from the unfortunate ageism connotations to the term (because it implies that memory loss = aging = something bad), the popularity of this phrase suggests that people do pay attention to changes in memory as they get older and often are ready to jump on a single instance of forgetting as a sign of impending cognitive decline. In this way, your subjective age already starts be influenced by your perception of changes in memory. However, as the authors point out, “perceived cognitive decline is not necessarily due to objective changes in cognitive functioning." You could be jumping on the everything-goes-downhill bandwagon without due cause.

Changes in physical health also influence your perceived age, but mainly because of the functional limitations that may be associated with those changes. However, not all of these may be due to intrinsic aging processes. People can experience mobility problems for reasons other than age, such as an accidental fall while playing sports, but the idea that age causes limitations in everyone reinforces the chances that you’ll blame age rather than bad luck should you get a sprained ankle or sore shoulder.

Perceived Age and Its Predictors Over Time

Based on the view that subjective age is a complex compilation of factors, and that it needs to be traced over time, Sabatini and her international team of collaborators turned to a comprehensive data set based on the Interdisciplinary Longitudinal Study of Adult Development (ILSE) begun in 1996 with a sample of 500 German individuals and tracked over 20 years later, using the remaining sample of 103 participants, whose average age was 83 years old at last testing. The factors used to predict subjective age consisted of comprehensive measurements of cognitive functioning (several standard intelligence test scales), depressive symptoms, objectively-assessed physical health (a clinical exam carried out by physicians) and a 1-item scale of subjectively rated health.

To assess perceived age, the authors took advantage of an extensive questionnaire that became part of the ILSE in its fourth wave, a measure known as the “Awareness of Age-Related Gains and Losses” (AARC). Rather than simply asking people how old they felt, which is a frequent measure used in subjective age research, the AARC makes possible a nuanced approach to assessing both the positives and the negatives in the way people viewed their own aging along a set of major life domains.

See how you would rate yourself on some of these sample items, all of which followed the prompt “With my increasing age I notice that…”:

  1. my ability to move around has gotten worse.
  2. I pay more attention to physical exercise.
  3. I am more forgetful.
  4. I gather more information before I make decisions.
  5. people sometimes treat me as if I were not there.
  6. others are treating me more respectfully.
  7. I am more anxious about the future.
  8. I recognize my own needs better.
  9. I need more time for everything I do.
  10. I have more say in setting my daily routine.

As you can tell, the odd-numbered items reflect losses, and the even-numbered items represent gains. The areas covered include health and physical functioning (1 and 2), cognitive functioning (3 and 4), interpersonal relations (5 and 6), social-emotional functioning (7 and 8), and lifestyle and engagement (9 and 10).

A second scale assessed “attitudes toward own aging (ATOA),” with items such as “things keep getting worse as I get older”).

Using these perceptions of aging measures as a function of the health, cognitive, and mental health variables described above across the 20-year span, the authors narrowed their predictive equation to those that made the most important contribution.

First, of the cognitive measures, only changes in digit span (recall of a series of numbers) predicted more AARC gains and more AARC losses. Surprisingly, changes in working memory, or the skills you use in everyday activities, proved to have no bearing on perceived age. Declines in subjective, but not objective, health predicted more losses, reinforcing the point that if you feel you’re getting older health-wise, you’ll also perceive more age-related declines. Finally, people who increased in depressive symptoms over time also perceived more age-related losses and lower ATOA scores as well.

What the Findings Mean for Your Own Subjective Age

Summing up their extensive set of findings, the authors concluded that people with more negative views about their own aging could benefit the most from health-promoting interventions that could potentially allow them to experience physical age changes more positively. Looking at the results from a slightly different angle, you can also see just how much a negative attitude about your own aging can accelerate into an increasingly pessimistic look at the changes occurring within yourself over time.

Indeed, scores on the predictor variables of cognitive functioning, physical health, and depression played a very small role in predicting scores on AARC gains, with only subjective health showing an association to this age-positive set of assessments. Perhaps people do tend to look at aging more from a glass-half-empty than half-full perspective, and do so to an extent that outweighs their actual objective performance on relevant scales.

Using the AARC as a guidepost, then, you could perhaps start to put more of a positive spin on the changes happening to you as you get older rather than just focusing on the losses. Go back and look at the actual instrument and see which of the positive gains apply to you. Are you better able to handle difficult interpersonal situations? Does your experience help you make better judgments? Do you find you enjoy some of the extra time you have once you’ve let go of some of your social obligations? Might you actually be exercising more and so are potentially in better health than you used to be?

To sum up, turning the considered wisdom about aging on its head could be just the remedy you need to start to feel more comfortable in your skin, even if that skin is a little more wrinkly than it used to be. Once you allow yourself to approach time’s effect on you with a greater sense of appreciation, fulfillment in your aging self can indeed be possible.

References

Sabatini, S., Siebert, J. S., Diehl, M., Brothers, A., & Wahl, H.-W. (2022). Identifying predictors of self-perceptions of aging based on a range of cognitive, physical, and mental health indicators: Twenty-year longitudinal findings from the ILSE study. Psychology and Aging, 37(4), 486–502. https://doi-org /10.1037/pag0000668.supp (Supplemental)

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