Feel Younger, Live Longer and Better

Feel younger, be stronger

Older adults typically feel younger than their chronological age. Having a younger subjective age (how you feel abut your age) predicts better psychological and physical health-related outcomes. Could a younger subjective age be experimentally induced and would it lead to improved physical performance? Researchers in France and Germany did just that with 49 evidently healthy, community-dwelling older adults with an average age of 74 years. Participants were randomized to either an experimental or a control group. All participants initially filled out a questionnaire that recorded their self-rated health and felt age and read a paper that linked better hand-grip strength to improved fitness and reduced risk of deterioration. All participants then squeezed a hand-held dynamometer as hard as possible to measure hand-grip strength.

Immediately thereafter, those in the experimental group were told that their grip strength exceeded that of 80 percent of their age-matched peers (which was mostly not true). Participants in the control group were not told anything about their grip strength. All participants filled out a questionnaire asking about the test, including how they felt they performed relative to age-matched peers, then repeated the hand-grip test. As expected, participants who reported younger felt age than chronological age showed a significant increase in grip strength from the first to the second test, while those in the control group did not. At least in this simple situation, the scientists induced a younger subjective age by using a downward social comparison (You did better than your peers). As expected, a younger subjective age led to greater physical performance. Interventions that use positive performance feedback and support to foster a younger subjective age may help older adults increase their self-efficacy and willingness to persist in embracing healthy lifestyle choices.

Positive vs. negative perceptions of aging

Subjective aging refers to how you perceive your own aging process. Would a positive perception of aging predict better health and greater longevity over time compared to a negative perception? An international groups of researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 19 long-term studies to find out. Subjects had an average age of 63 years. The researchers found that subjects with a positive self-perception of aging were 43 percent more likely than those with a negative self-perception of aging to experience better health and greater longevity. The following cascade of events could account for their findings. Positive subjective aging leads to a positive self-concept, which leads to better health behaviors, which lead to better health, which promotes greater longevity. Your perceptions of your own aging can serve as self-fulfilling prophesies that influence your life course over time for better or worse. If your perceptions of your aging are negative, you can change your mind. If so, you’ll likely enjoy better health and live longer, thus extending your Quality of Lifespan.

Positive self-perceptions of aging help Australians live longer

Consider Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “You become what you think about all day long.” If Emerson was correct, it would make sense that your self-perceptions of aging would affect how you age. If you expect that aging will be negative (infirmity, illness, loss of independence), it will more likely turn out to be so. On the other hand, if you expect that aging will be positive (greater wisdom, time to reflect on your life, greater patience), life will more likely turn out to be positive. Researchers in Australia addressed this possibility using data from the Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging. The Study obtained a representative sample of Australians at least 70 years of age starting with Wave 1 in 1992-1993. Data were also collected for other participants during Waves 3 (1994-1995), 6 (2000-2001), and 9 (2007-2008). Self-perception of aging was measured with the Attitudes Toward Own Aging subscale from Lawton’s Philadelphia Geriatric Centre Morale Scale.

After adjusting for confounding factors (such as age, self-rated health, and psychological functioning), lower self-perceptions of aging significantly predicted higher risk of mortality. The researchers found that participants whose self-perception of aging declined more steeply during 16 years of follow-up had significantly greater risk of mortality. People with positive self-perceptions of aging might be more likely to adopt healthy habits or to follow doctors’ guidance, thus leading to longer life.

Transform negative views of aging

Negative views of aging predict poorer subsequent health and well-being. How might these negative views be transformed into more positive views? German researcher Dana Kotter-Gruhn identified two major sources of negative beliefs about aging. First, negative age stereotypes operate on the social level, leading many people to believe that older persons are weak, forgetful, and unhealthy (among other negative attributes), thereby leading many people to treat older people condescendingly. Second, many older people adopt these negative age stereotypes in their own lives. Such beliefs do not support older people making healthy lifestyle choices—what’s the use?, older people might think.

Addressing societal-level negative age stereotypes could be countered with campaigns to correct mis-perceptions about older people, changing portrayals of older people (especially in television, films, and social media), and by greater opportunities for inter-generational contact. For example, studies show benefits of older people volunteering in schools to tutor and mentor students. Happily, the benefits accrue to both the students and the older volunteers. On the individual level, interventions could be developed to educate older persons about the fallacies of negative age stereotypes and their harmful effects on their health and well-being. One successful intervention included an “add-on” component to a physical activity study where participants learned the positive aspects of and misconceptions about aging, as well as the salutary effects of positive self-perceptions of aging. The growing ranks of older people in developed nations would fare better on societal and individual levels if negative age stereotypes disappeared.

Feel younger, live longer

Could feeling older that one’s chronological age actually influence risk of dying prematurely? Two British researchers addressed this question with data from 6,489 participants with an average chronological age of 66 years in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Participants responded to the question, “How old do you feel you are?” After adjusting for numerous potential confounding factors, participants who felt older than their chronological age had significant 41 and 55 percent higher risks of dying from any cause or cardiovascular disease, respectively, after an average follow-up of 8 years. People who feel younger than their chronological age may embrace aspects of the healthy lifestyle choice, Develop a Positive Mental Attitude, and live generally on the bright side of life and live longer partly as a consequence.

Subjective age and recovery after osteoporotic fracture

Osteoporotic fractures and stroke comprise major sources of loss of independence for older adults. Subjective age strongly predicts physical and psychological health. Would hospitalized older patients who report younger subjective age at admission have higher functional independence at discharge? Would aspects of well-being (optimism, self-esteem, life satisfaction) mediate the effect of subjective age on functional independence? A team of Israeli researchers studied 194 older hospitalized osteoporotic fracture and stroke patients (average age 78 years) to find out. Nurses evaluated participants at admission and again at discharge (median of 29 days later) using the 18-item Functional Independence Measure (FIM) that focused on ease of performing activities of daily living. As predicted, patients who reported younger subjective age at admission had better FIM scores at discharge. Of three well-being variables, only optimism mediated the effect of subjective age on FIM. Thus, older persons with osteoporotic fracture or stroke who feel younger and who have a generally optimistic outlook on life are more likely to embrace their often painful rehabilitation regime and regain their functional independence compared to patients who feel older and have a pessimistic outlook. Does your outlook on life matter? Of course, it does!

Subjective age predicts health outcomes

A team of researchers in Europe and the US updated a previous meta-analysis of 19 studies of the longitudinal associations of subjective age and health outcomes. The new meta-analysis included 99 articles that reported 107 longitudinal studies. The studies included a median of 1,863 adults with a median age of 66 years and a median follow-up of 4.5 years.  Overall, the updated meta-analysis confirmed a small but statistically significant association between subjective age and health outcomes. The multi-faceted construct, self-perceptions of aging, showed stronger associations with health and longevity than did more narrowly defined definitions of aging.  Interestingly, no significant differences appeared between subjective age and different health outcomes (psychological, behavioral and physiological pathways, self-reported and objective physical health, mental health, longevity). Thus, more positive views of one’s own aging predict a wide range of better health outcomes.

Negative self-perceptions of aging predict unfavorable health-related outcomes in several domains including reduced functional health, more depression, and lower engagement in positive health behaviors, mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and higher all-cause mortality. While these relationships may be bi-directional, the effects are stronger for self-perceptions of aging on health outcomes than the other way around. Psychological factors, such as self-perceptions of aging, maintain physical and mental health across adulthood.

What to do

Find ways to  have a positive outlook on life. You'll probably feel younger. Spend time with others who also feel young at heart and who have a sunny disposition. My Mom has a positive view of life and will celebrate her 100th birthday this June.

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