What does ‘subjective age’ mean?

Researchers have examined the ‘potential psychological and physiological consequences’ of feeling older or younger.

What does it feel like to be “really old” to you? Your physical and psychological health could be affected if you feel younger or older than you are biologically.

Scientists have been exploring the gap between chronological age and the age an individual “feels” – our subjective age, for decades. The earliest studies occurred in the 1970s and 80s, said the BBC [1].

Over the past decade, a “torrent” of studies have looked into the possible “psychological and physiological consequences” of being younger or older than your biological age.

Do most people find the discrepancy significant?

“Why are so many people able to grasp this highly ambiguous concept – ‘subjective age‘ – so readily when presented with it randomly?” asked journalist Jennifer Senior [2].

According to her, it is a “bizarre” phenomenon. “We don’t think of ourselves as shorter or taller than we are. We don’t perceive ourselves as having smaller ears, longer noses or curlier hair.”

In a Duke University study conducted in 2006, 40% of Danish adults thought they were 20% younger than their actual age [3]. Adults younger than the age of 25 mostly said they regarded themselves as older than their chronological age. 

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What makes us think we are younger?

According to Senior, the Duke University study failed to examine why, in general, we have an urge to subtract. Nevertheless, some have offered a “predictable” explanation: “namely, that many people view aging as a catastrophe”. 

Despite this, Senior argued that viewing yourself as younger is a form of optimism, not denial. The statement implies that you will not be dismissed, that your future is not one long, gloomy corridor of locked doors, she said. Psychologists have speculated that having a low subjective age “is a form of self-defence” in order to protect us from negative age stereotypes.

What does 'subjective age' mean?
Photograph: stokerolga/Envato

According to Anna Kornadt of Bielefeld University in Germany, people’s subjective ages are lower when negative age stereotypes are most pronounced, such as in work, health and finance [4]. BBC reports that feeling more youthful than your chronological age helps people separate themselves from the negative connotations of their age group.

According to Kornadt, people with lower subjective ages are more likely to envision themselves in a positive light in the future, suggesting that a sense of our subjective age being younger than our chronological age can protect us from society’s “dismal” view of aging and give us a more optimistic outlook.”

Does feeling younger have any health benefits?

It seems that feeling younger than you are has physical and psychological benefits. According to the Wall Street Journal, “recent research has linked positive attitudes towards aging – and feeling younger than you are – with longer lives” [5].

Study results found that participants who expected to continue growing and developing into old age lived an average of 13 years longer than those who did not expect such growth [6]. “For me, feeling younger is important. It is a soft protection. If I feel younger, I am more motivated to be engaged and active,” said Susanne Wurm, study author and professor at the University of Greifswald.

Health-damaging stress can also be generated by those older than their chronological age. According to recent studies of men over 50, men who feel older than their actual age have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and C reactive protein, inflammatory markers linked to heart disease.

What can I do to feel younger?

According to Dayna Touron, associate dean and psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, “being open to new experiences and challenges” can lower our subjective, psychological age [7].

You can do this by taking up a hobby, taking up new classes, traveling, spending time with friends who are positive about the aging process, or taking new classes. As she advises, “common slip-ups are not inherently signs of cognitive failure”, but simply a normal part of life, unless they are very common. “Beliefs about declining health as you age can self-fulfill,” she said.

Additionally, you can make lifestyle changes, as demonstrated by researcher Dr David Sinclair, who practices four daily habits that makes him a decade younger than his actual age.

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[1] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180712-the-age-you-feel-means-more-than-your-actual-birthdate
[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2023/04/subjective-age-how-old-you-feel-difference/673086/
[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2023/04/subjective-age-how-old-you-feel-difference/673086/
[4] https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article/73/5/767/2631986?login=false
[5] https://www.wsj.com/articles/can-feeling-younger-improve-health-subjective-age-11670009137
[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35201819/
[7] https://www.theweek.co.uk/news/science-health/960063/what-is-subjective-age

Photograph: insidecreativehouse/Envato
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