Feeling young at heart may help you live longer

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

I just celebrated a birthday, and not the kind women like to crow about. Let’s just say I’m mid-century modern. But I feel as young and as vibrant as ever. I have energy, a zest for life, and a real sense of purpose. And it turns out that this youthful feeling may pay off big-time. A research letter in JAMA Internal Medicine found that older people who felt three or more years younger than their actual (chronological) age had a lower death rate compared with those who felt their age or those who felt more than one year older than their actual age.

You’re as young as you feel

Two researchers at University College London looked at the responses of about 6,500 men and women who answered the question, “How old do you feel you are?” The respondents were age 52 and older, with an average age of 65. Their answers:

  • about 70% felt three or more years younger than their actual age
  • 25% felt close to their actual age
  • 5% felt more than one year older than their actual age

What came next was the really interesting part: Eight years after study participants answered the age question, researchers determined which ones were still alive:

  • 75% of those who felt older than their age
  • 82% of those who felt their actual age
  • 86% of those who felt younger than their actual age.

More than just a state of mind?

Did a youthful feeling keep people alive? There was no association between self-perceived age and cancer death. But researchers did find that the relationship between self-perceived age and cardiovascular death was strong. They speculate that feeling younger may lead to better health habits. “Feeling younger or older itself seems to have an effect on our health,” says Dr. Ronald D. Siegel, assistant professor of psychology, part time, at Harvard Medical School.

He says there are several ways that feeling younger psychologically might lead to better health. One is exercise. Good health is associated with 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week. “When people see themselves as old, they’re more likely to abandon physical challenges which feel difficult, such as, ‘I don’t think I should ski any more, I’m an old man.’ When people feel younger psychologically, even if physical exercise is challenging, they’re more likely to pursue it, believing no pain no gain,” Dr. Siegel explains.

Another way that feeling younger leads to better health may be attitude about diet. “If we feel old, we’re likely to treat food with an ‘I won’t live much longer, I might as well enjoy this’ attitude which could lead us to eat unhealthfully. If we feel young, we may have more of a future-orientation that will lead us to eat with future health in mind.” Avoiding added sugars, trans fats and saturated fats, and increasing dietary fiber, good fats, whole grains, and omega 3 fatty acids is important for good health.

Grow younger each day

Feeling younger may also inspire a sense of resilience that keeps people young. Don’t worry if you’re not feeling especially bouncy, says Dr. Siegel, who’s also the faculty editor of Positive Psychology, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School. He has plenty of suggestions for helping us reach a younger state of mind:

  • Challenge yourself to try new things, learn new ideas, and develop new skills. Realizing that most human abilities follow a “use it or lose it” pattern can motivate us to stay active in all realms of our lives.
  • Bring your attention repeatedly to the present moment, through formal mindfulness meditation or informal mindfulness practice. It can help you to appreciate this moment, rather than becoming lost in regrets about the past or imagining future deterioration.
  • Develop a sense of meaning in life. Focus on something larger than yourself, whether that’s connecting with people close to you or helping improve the lives of others. Or commit yourself to a hobby you love, such as gardening, attending the theater, dancing, or reading. “When our focus is just on our own immediate pleasure or pain, we’re much more likely to have difficulty with the aging process,” says Dr. Siegel.

Personally, I’m going to celebrate my new year by doing more bike riding with my husband and our youngest son; more lunching, shopping, and gabbing with our teenaged daughter; and more philosophizing with our oldest son, the economics guru who’s about to graduate from college. I may be a little older, but I don’t feel older. And I hope I can stay young at heart, no matter how many candles are on my cake!

Related Information: A Plan for Successful Aging


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  14. Daves Noni Juice

    Howdy Heidi, I’m all about it. Actually, you will be the way you think about it. If you feel younger at the age of 50, your body automatic works for it and you receive comments from others that you look pretty young. I’ve heard somewhere that it’s a law of attraction.

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    Very true, Dr. Arathi Rao @ EmpoweredMind helps her 80 and 90 heart patient focus on a “bigger” purpose and connecting with other. This contributes to remarkable transformations!

  17. Pat Menchan

    Great article. Good to know that being ‘young at heart’ actually works!

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    There’s so much evidence that mindset is a major predictor of health. It seems when a diagnosis happens people basically give up then all of a sudden their illness got a TON worse. Why is this? It would have happened anyway or is the new bad attitude causing symptoms to worsen rapidly? It’s a mindset thing.

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  26. Leonora

    What a great piece of advice the paragraph ‘grow younger each day’ is! I just wish that our modern lifestyle would allow for more time to actually do what many of us know we should be doing.

  27. Dr Jay Amin

    Excellent ideas shared you in this article, I really glad to feeling this point. I think if I’d started earlier in my life it might have stuck, especially if I had started before I became incredibly inflexible and had a tough time starting thinking my young heart.


  28. stenny fandy

    this is cute. thanks for sharing. the important things are our feeling. we will forever young if we feel we are still young!

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    So true, great info thanks for sharing. I also believe good nutrition is very important.

  30. Dan Jakson

    I find your article very well written and informative. I personally do think that the power to being healthy in mind and body is within our brain. We can do a lot of amazing things with the will power. Being ill can make us feel anxious and that can have a negative impact on our general health. Knowing how to overcome anxiety and panic attacks can really make the difference between a normal life or a living nightmare.

    Thank you!

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    Feeling young at heart may help you live longer
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    Concerning the Harvard Health Publication Article titled: You’re as young as you feel…
    It is really true ….for example I feel I am twenty five years old …and I really feel it…
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    Feeling young at heart may help you live longer – Harvard Health Publications:
    Yes I feel I am 25 years Old…..! and I really feel it….
    My Best Wishes for :

  47. Mary Alice Shulman

    I’m 91, or maybe it is 92, but who cares. I belong to a group, AAUW, that has a number of study groups, such a Great Decisions, Genealogy, and one that I invented called “Local Decisions” that has grown nicely.

    I also subscribe to a Chamber Arts series of concerts through the University Musical Society.

    I try to keep up with friends by calling them and suggesting we meet to eat, at some local restaurant.

    I am not as good as I might be at going to funerals.

    I belong to two bridge group, one a foursome that meets twice a moth, 12 months of the year. Bridge is a unforgiving game. If you are losing it you see it first there.

    Living in Ann Arbor is in itself stimulating. I have a personal trainer that I have had for roughly 20 years who works me out at the County Rec building, where once you pass 80, the cost of belonging drops to $50 for the year.

    I also am deeply immersed in my own family history. I can say that I knew a man who knew a man who was alive during the American Revolution. Shows what a young country we are.

    I run my own stock portfolio with a broker that I trust, and have been quite good at it.

    I live alone in the two story house that my husband and I bought for retirement. He died before the turn of the century, but I have no urge to move.

    I have some care givers as I need them. I have broken my hip, fractured two ribs, and developed a nasty cancer inside my mouth. They got it all out, but now the trick is to fit a prosthesis that is comfortable. “All I want for Xmas is my four front teeth!”

    • mary lee

      Hi there Ms. Shulman, Its like they say, “you’ll as young as you feel” and you have nothing to dread at your age. Its marvelous the things you’ve accomplished and are still engaged in for your age, in spite of your disabillities. Norocking chair for you young lady. You’re still keeping on keeping all. Its no stop for you. The best is yet to come, so keep on hoping, keep on trusting and most of all keep on beleiving in the one who is the author and finisher of all your faith and has made all these things possible to you. My best regards, to the you in the new year. God’s love and Prayers

    • Kathryn

      You sound quite darling!