How Old Do You Feel?

Subjective age may be more meaningful than biological age

Posted Jul 09, 2018

Ever lied about your age? If you are over 35, the answer may be yes.  And in all likelihood, you estimated in the downward direction, unless you had your eye – prematurely – on the senior discount of the day.  

Propensities to play down our biological age reflect a deep psychological truth.  As we age, we often do not feel as old as the years indicated on the calendar.     

‘Subjective age’ is the term for how old one feels and can vary over time.  It is distinct from biological or chronological age, which is unwaveringly tied to our birthdate.  Midlife and older adults routinely report feeling 10 or 20 years younger than their biological age.  The discrepancy between subjective and biological age typically grows over the course of adult development.

Feeling younger than one’s biological age is sign of health and predicts lower mortality, positive expectations, and better cognitive abilities.  Thus, feeling younger means doing better.

Typically, subjective age is assessed by asking persons how old they feel.  In recent innovative work, published in The Journals of Gerotology, Kornadt and colleagues tested a multidimensional measure of subjective age.  That is, they determined if subjective age is not a single thing but many things.  They tested subjective age in seven life domains, namely family, friends and social relations, leisure, personality, finances, work, and health.  Results supported their hypothesis that subjective age varies across life domains.

Subjective age was most different from chronological age for aspects of life in which negative stereotypes are greatest.  For example, in western society, we tend to think of older adults as less competent at work than younger adults.  In the domain of work, subjective age had a large difference from biological age.  

In contrast, subjective age was less different from chronological age for life domains in which we have less negative – or even – positive expectations about aging.  For leisure, subjective age and biological age were fairly close.

Ideas about how old we feel may be determined – in part – by aging stereotypes, as well as being reflective of positive outcomes.  Thus, how old one feels may be a more important indicator of overall physical and mental health than biological age.

References

Kornadt, A.E., Hess, T.M., Voss, P., & Rothermund, K.  (2018).  Subjective age across the life span: A differentiated, longitudinal approach.  Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 73, 767–777.

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