You’re only as old as you feel – research says so

German study finds feeling younger protects middle-aged against damaging stress

Mark Twain: ‘Age is a matter of mind over matter. If you don’t mind it doesn’t matter.’

Mark Twain: ‘Age is a matter of mind over matter. If you don’t mind it doesn’t matter.’

 

We are all familiar with the saying “You’re only as old as you feel”. As Irish-born artist Francis Bacon said “I will never be an old man. To me old age is always 15 years older than I am”. And again, Mark Twain said, “Age is a matter of mind over matter. If you don’t mind it doesn’t matter”. I am happy to report that, within reason, scientific investigation has shown there is truth in these sayings. This research is reported by M Wettstein and others from the German Centre of Gerontology in the journal Psychology and Ageing ( Vol. 16, No. 3, 2021). The study suggests one reason for the link between subjective age and good health is that feeling younger protects middle-aged and older adults against damaging stress.

The researchers analysed three years’ data (2014-2017) from 5,039 participants in the German Ageing Survey, a longitudinal survey of Germans aged 40-95 (50.8 per cent females, 49,2 per cent males, overall mean age 63.9 at start of study). Subjects were asked about the amount of stress they perceived in their lives: “In the past month how often did difficulties pile so high you felt you could not handle them?” (on a scale ranging from “never” to “very often”); they were asked about their functional health; the extent they were limited in activities such as walking, dressing and bathing (“limited a little”, “limited a lot” or “not limited at all”), and they were asked to indicate their subjective age by answering the question, “How old do you feel?

We know that generally functional health declines with advancing age and that decline trajectories can vary greatly from one individual to the next. It is also known that experiencing high levels of stress over a protracted amount of time is one of the biggest risks for physical and mental health. On average, participants in this study with more stress in their lives reported a greater decline in functional health over the three years. This linkage between functional health decline and stress was stronger for chronologically older subjects. However the link between stress and functional health decline was weaker among people who felt younger than their chronological age. Subjective age seems to provide a protective buffer.

It seems therefore that helping older people to feel younger should reduce the harm caused by stress and improve health, although the optimum interventions that should be used are yet to be determined. Lead author Wettstein suggests that public campaigns to combat ageism and promote positive views on ageing would encourage people to feel younger. And functional health loss among older adults would be much reduced by stress management training and other stress reduction interventions.

What is the ideal gap between subjective and chronological age? For example, would you really be “on the pig’s back” if you felt like you were only 25 years-old when you were 75? I’m afraid not. Other research shows that the benefits of feeling younger than your chronological age decrease as the gap between subjective and chronological age increases. Further research is necessary to work out the ideal gap between subjective and chronological age.

Functional health declines in older age because wear and tear begins to take a toll on the body. So how do you manage to feel young as your body stiffens up, you lose your upright stance, your hips and/or your knees wear out, your stamina for walking declines and your body strength plummets? The answer is that you can take steps to greatly slow down the rate at which these things happen.

A regular exercise regime will keep you strong, active and supple. Flexibility exercises will keep your body limber and maintain your upright stance. Hip and knee replacements are now routine operations and mostly very successful. Regular aerobic exercise (brisk walking and/or running) will maintain your stamina for movement and light resistance exercises such as light weight-lifting, will slow down muscle loss and maintain your strength.

And much research demonstrates that good social contacts are very important for maintaining good mental health and happiness. Keep up with your old friends and make new friends. Join a club and spend time regularly in social activities.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC

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