Many older people feel younger than they really are. But can feeling “young at heart” have real health benefits?
In a new research letter, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, co-authors Isla Rippon and Andrew Steptoe from University College London examined the link between self-perceived age and mortality.
The researchers divided volunteers into three groups: those whose self-perceived age was close to their actual age, those who felt more than one year older than their age, and those who felt three or more years younger than their age.
How Does Age Affect Heart Disease, Cancer Risk?
The authors examined data from 6,489 volunteers and measured their self-perceived age by asking, “How old do you feel you are?” Over an average follow-up period of 99 months, the researchers tracked all-cause mortality and deaths from heart disease and cancer.
At the start of the study, the average age of participants was 65.8. Nearly 70 percent reported feeling three or more years younger than their age. Only 25.6 percent of participants reported feeling close to their age. The remaining 4.8 percent said they felt more than a year older.
In March 2013, the authors found mortality rates of 14.3 percent for people who felt younger, 18.5 percent for those who felt close to their actual age, and 24.6 percent for those who felt older.
People who felt three or more years younger than their age were significantly less likely to die from heart disease, compared to those who felt their age or older. Only 4.5 percent of participants who felt younger died of heart disease, while 5.6 percent of participants who felt close to their age, and 10.2 percent of participants who felt more than one year older than their age, died of cardiovascular disease.
However, people who felt younger were only slightly less likely to die from cancer than those who felt their age or older.
Even when the authors adjusted for health and lifestyle factors, such as history of illness, disability, physical activity, and alcohol use, they still found that feeling younger was linked to reduced mortality.
“We expected to find an association between self-perceived age and mortality,” Steptoe told Healthline. “What we did not expect is that the relationship would still be present even when we took into account wealth, other sociodemographic indicators, health, depression, mobility, and other factors.”
What Shapes Our Perception of Age?
People’s sense of their own age is shaped by many factors, Steptoe said. “For some people it will be aches and pains, for others their physical appearance, and for others a sense that they lack vigor and are physically limited.”
In the study, feeling younger was linked to better physical and mental health, better brain function, a healthier lifestyle, and more social activity.
“Feeling your age is also influenced by social attitudes about the elderly,” Steptoe added. “And negative views about older people, such as they are slow and not mentally agile may affect how old a person feels.”
The authors believe more research is needed to look at a broader set of health behaviors in those who feel younger than their age. Future studies may look at the health effects of a healthy weight, adherence to medical advice, greater resilience, a sense of mastery, and the will to live.