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 this week’s 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!