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Does Feeling Younger Than Your Actual Age Have Benefits?

Feeling younger could be a stress buffer.

Key points

  • Feeling younger than your chronological age has beneficial health effects.
  • At age 80, maintaining body strength and cognitive agility is important.
  • One strategy to remain youthful is to challenge limiting thoughts. Don’t discard an idea because you think you’re too old to consider it.
J. Hustein, with permission
grandma babysitting
Source: J. Hustein, with permission

I spent the past 15 months running around after a two-year-old: sitting cross-legged on the floor with a tea-set, crawling into blanket-covered forts, reading books with her perched on my lap, and doing puzzles together while crouched on a carpet. I ran, hopped, and danced to please my charge at other moments.

I’m not a nanny but a grandmother trying to help out my work-from-home daughter with the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. And, not incidentally, I’m 80 years old. Good genes, maybe, though I’ve outlived my parents by decades. Good fortune, for sure!

But I credit my ability to play, as-if-I-were-40, with my subjective experience of myself as youthful. I see myself as ageless. Maybe I’m delusional or just fortunate for the time being.

So it was with great delight that I saw a recent journal article that piqued my interest because it resonated with my conviction that I can still do lots of stuff at my advanced age. Although I am a psychologist, I’ve retired and ceased reading stuffy professional journal articles.

But this one in the Psychology and Aging journal of the American Psychological Association caught my eye and confirmed my beliefs: “Feeling Younger as a Stress Buffer: Subjective Age Moderates the Effect of Perceived Stress on Change in Functional Health.”

The authors studied a large pool of older adults to determine whether the age they felt they were, rather than their actual age, affected their health. In the author’s words, they found that

A younger subjective age was a significant predictor of a less steep decline in functional health among older individuals. Additionally, among individuals feeling younger, the detrimental effect of perceived stress on functional health change was weaker.

This means that seeing yourself as having a subjective age below your actual age produces a stress buffer that truly increases in size with chronological age. It also produces positive health benefits.

Like all studies, this one has limitations in that it was conducted in Germany and might have produced different outcomes in the U.S. Still. It gives us older folks in the U.S. some guidelines to consider using in our daily lives.

Now for the practical implications of this study. Can we affect our health, stamina, and stress level by seeing ourselves as younger than we are? Is 80 the new 60? And at what point does this go too far? For example, is taking on a project at 80 that might be a challenge for a 50-year-old an exercise in good judgment or foolhardy? Although some 80-year-olds can probably run marathons, is that a reasonable goal for you?

To this very point, Jane Brody, health writer at the New York Times, recently wrote a series of articles on turning 80 on the occasion of her 80th birthday. She said, “Strive to do what you love for as long as you can do it.… I consider daily physical activity to be as important as eating and sleeping. I accept no excuses.”

Of course, there may be limitations. While downhill skiing may no longer be in the cards for you, daily walks are critical if you are mobile. If not, what about hand-held weights or chair yoga? Maintaining your body strength is important, but so is maintaining your cognitive agility, and you can accomplish this by taking on new, complex, and problem-solving tasks like learning to play chess or a musical instrument. Working toward mastery of a physical exercise and/or brain strengthening strategy also benefits your I-can-still-do-this perception of yourself.

Recently, Brody interviewed Anthony Fauci, who has become a familiar name as a respected health spokesperson during the long siege of COVID-19. At 80, he maintains a work ethic and schedule that would exhaust a much younger person. He told Brody that “I’ve been a marathon and 10K runner for the last multiple decades has been very important in my staying fit, looking fit and feeling fit.” Amazing but not impossible! Don’t stop doing what you love because you think you might be getting too old to do it.

At 80, we’ve traded some of our good looks and stamina for wisdom, which could be defined as the ability to make new connections among the vast number of facts and ideas that comprise our storehouse of knowledge—collected over the decades. We might even be better at it than 20-somethings or Gen Xers when it comes to decision-making.

Judgment may also be improved by the passage of the years, which brings us back to experiencing ourselves as younger than we are. Here, I’m not talking about wearing clothes that would make a teen’s eyes roll. That might be a fun thought, but probably not good judgment. It isn’t about looking decades younger, although looking younger through skincare routines and cosmetic strategies can contribute to seeing yourself as more youthful.

Also, consider surrounding yourself with some younger people who can expand your world with their generational views. Maybe embark on some things that your early years and midlife lifestyle could not accommodate. Learn something new—a foreign language, a computer language, painting with watercolors, or wood sculpting. These endeavors may also expose you to an expanded social network, which is a good thing as we get older and lose some family and friends for various reasons.

Another strategy to remain youthful is to challenge limiting thoughts. Don’t discard any ideas just because you think you’re too old to consider them. Who said you’re too old to mountain climb, scuba dive, write a book, learn to act? Not that every idea will be a winner, but don’t cut short your options without consideration.

Push your hopes, wishes, bucket-list plans until they appear to cross the line of reasonableness. Parachute jumping at 95? Not for everyone, but not impossible either.

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