Humans are unique in their capacity for introspection. We have perceptions of our ageing process. It comes from our personal experiences. From our interaction with people and the world around us. This "Subjective Age" has a powerful impact on our health and wellbeing.
One of the particularities of human beings is that they are able to reflect on themselves. We can perceive ourselves as changing. We can build a picture in our own mind of our own ageing process, our “Subjective Age”. We look at information from inside our own bodies. We tap into our own stereotype. We also look at our interactions with other people and their stereotypes.
A recent review looked at nineteen longitudinal studies. These followed the life trajectories of nearly fifteen thousand people. Each had measured “subjective age” early in the study. They could measure physical and perceived health later. Each could also track those respondents who sadly died in the process. The vast majority showed a positive relationship. The younger people felt or the more positive they were about their own ageing, the healthier they lived and the longer their lives. These relationships were all independent of chronological age. It too has an effect on health and longevity. Because these were longitudinal we know that positive subjective age caused these effects.
Different Measures of Subjective Age
The ways of measuring subjective age have already been described in these Newsletters (Newsletters #017: “The Enemy Within”; #034: “Which Time Is It?”). Felt Age or Cognitive Age measures our attitudes towards our age. “How old do you feel?” is an attitudinal question. It can be assessed relative to different bands of ages. “Do you feel 65-70 etc. It can be broken down into attitudes towards how we look or act. Most studies use the gap between chronological age and felt age as a measure of subjective age. Across many studies that gap averages around 20%. We generally have a positive view of our age. The number does vary across geographies and our lives.
Other researchers focus on our attitudes towards our process of ageing. They have developed different scales. The most common is the “Attitudes Towards Ageing Scale”. This scale includes items such as:
“Things keep getting worse as I get older,”
“As you get older, you are less useful,” or
“I am as happy now as I was when I was younger.”
Other scales such as the “Images of Ageing Scale” or the “Personal Experience of Ageing Scale” all tap into the same underlying attitudes (Newsletter #098: “The Friend Within”).
A recent set of studies has conceptualized our life span using a thitd measure. As a series of gains and losses. For example, when we are young the gains are of freedom and independence. These outweigh the loss of close family contact. As we age the balance tips. We perceive ourselves as losing more than we gain. A study measured this idea directly. It showed that a gains were the key. They were associated with positive health outcomes and a longer life. The measure outperformed other socio-demographic variables including chronological age. The most powerful predictor was the sense that we were still developing.
The researchers looked across all nineteen studies. They found no difference in the results depending on how Subjective Age was measured.
How do these Attitudes Become Self-fulling Prophecies
There are two broad ways that this can happen: behavioral and psychological. If we feel younger we behave younger. We take more care of ourselves. We will avoid activities known to be bad for our health. We will stop smoking or never start. We will drink to moderation. We will be more likely to engage in activities that are beneficial to our health. We will exercise and eat well. Some of the studies included such activities. There was a relationship between subjective age at one point and activities at a future point.
“You Are As Old As You Feel” seems to work through underlying psychological processes. Our identity is based on our self-consistency and self-enhancement. It is partly tied to our sense that we are the “same” over time. We seldom look in the mirror and see our true self. We see what we want to see. That is someone who hasn’t changed “much” since we were younger. It is often disturbing to see your true self. I did some television interviews and was surprised at how I looked.
Self-enhancement goes further and taps into our need to go “forward”. As we age we eventually reach that point where it is no longer possible to maintain our self-identity. We no longer feel we are maintaining or developing. That is one reason why being told to no longer drive is such an emotional event.
Other pathways have been suggested. Younger age identities have a a lower incidence of depression. A direct physiological influence was found. Subliminal priming was used induce a positive or negative attitude to ageing. Cardiovascular functioning improved with a positive attitude. In other Newsletters I have intoduced "perceived control". This is one way of understanding customer satisfaction. This too has been suggested as a mediator between subjective age and health.
Mind Over Matter
Mark Twain made a pun on the expression “Mind over Matter”. When talking of ageing he said “If you don’t mind it doesn’t matter”. It turns out that he could not be more wrong. It does matter whether you mind!