The Strange Sense of Feeling Younger Than You Are

By Emeran Mayer, MD

A recent excellent article by Robert Roy Britt in the online publication Elemental “Why Our Minds Never Catch Up With Our Bodies – That strange sense of feeling younger than you are is very common” reminded me of my own experiences around the topic of subjective age. Subjective age refers to how individuals experience themselves as younger or older than their actual age. Interestingly, as recent research has shown, there is more to this perceptual distortion of age than a subjective experience.

“I see myself as adventurous, full of youthful ideas, plans and ideas, not different from the mindset I had in my 20s.”

When a wealthy, retired businessman in his 50s invited me and two of my fellow students (all of us in our 20s at the time) to participate as camera and sound assistants in a documentary film expedition to indigenous Yanomami people living along the upper Orinoco River, we always referred to him as the “old guy” and made jokes about him trying to portray the image of a young and invincible man. Now that I find myself in an even older age group than our expedition leader was at the time, I also see myself as adventurous, full of youthful ideas, plans and ideas, not different from the mindset I had in my 20s. Furthermore, in contrast to feeling most comfortable amongst people my own age in childhood and adolescence, I now greatly enjoy interacting with my students during classes and experiments at the University (some 40 years younger than myself), and sometimes find myself avoiding socializing with people my age or older that don’t share a similar age “distortion” and feel most comfortable talking about the challenges of getting older. Even before becoming aware of several studies that associate a younger subjective age with positive health outcomes, I have always been convinced that subjective age perception, in addition to metabolic age has more to do with longevity and health, than our chronological age.

“…perceptions of older people were increasingly younger than their current age.”

While the aging process is a universal phenomenon, people perceive and experience their aging considerably differently. Research quoted by Britt’s blogpost supported many of my own experiences and perceptions. For example, investigators at Michigan State University,1 examined the relationship of actual age and the perception of subjective age (e.g., how old do you feel?). In a sample of 502,548 internet respondents ranging in age from 10 to 89, the researchers found that older adults reported older perceptions of aging (e.g., choosing to be older, feeling older, being perceived as older), but surprisingly, that these perceptions were increasingly younger than their current age. In addition, the age to which individuals hoped to live dramatically increased after age 40.

“… the subjective experience of aging is closely related to the process of brain aging.”

While these study results provided objective insights into how the aging process may affect individual judgments about the self and others, it is unclear whether and how the subjective perception of age is associated with the objective neurobiological process of aging. In a recent study2 from investigators in Seoul, South Korea, set out to answer this question. 68 healthy older adults were asked about their subjective age and underwent brain imaging scans to assess regional brain volume differences. The goal of the study was to explore whether the three groups that differed from each other in subjective age (i.e., feeling younger, same, or older than actual age) differed in their brain volumes, and predicted brain age. The fascinating results showed that elderly individuals who perceived themselves as younger than their real age showed not only larger grey matter volumes in cognitive brain regions, but also younger predicted brain age. Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that the subjective experience of aging is closely related to the process of brain aging. Of course, there is always the possibility of reverse causality: people that feel younger are more likely to exercise and pay more attention to a healthy diet, factors which has been shown to increase brain volume as well.

“…the subjective perception of age may have an important influence on late-life health outcomes, including mortality.”

Research suggests that the subjective perception of age may have an important influence on late-life health outcomes, including mortality.3 According to these studies, subjective age seems to be associated with various negative outcomes, including physical health, frailty, self-rated health, life satisfaction, depressive symptoms, hospitalization and cognitive decline.2 For example, subjective reports of one’s own cognitive decline have received attention as an important source of information for the prediction of neurophysiological changes. Even when no signs of decline are found in cognitive test scores, subjective complaints of cognitive impairment may reflect early stages of dementia or pathological changes in the brain.4 Although chronological and metabolic age are important factors in explaining these late-life health outcomes, these studies emphasize the importance of how our brain function determines to a large degree what actually happens to us when we get old.

As Britt writes: “Feeling younger than reality isn’t reserved just for those who are in great physical health, however. Older people saddled with multiple illnesses, even those suffering chronic pain, tend to put their subjective age many years younger than time would tell.” Lisa Carver, PhD, an assistant professor at Queen’s University in Ontario, interviewed 66 people in the U.S. and Canada ages 65 to 90. “More than half of the participants, despite the presence of illness, felt at least 20 years younger than their age,” Carver writes. “Some said they felt as young as 17.”

“Taking up mountain biking … “might also explain why all the hills seem to have gotten mysteriously steeper.”

If people feel younger than they are, they may have a surprising desire to continue working past retirement age; run for political office (look at our President) or start a new business, and to the consternation of their grown kids, older parents (or grandparents) might wish to hop on an electric bicycle and start mountain biking. And as the author of the Elemental article so pointedly warns: Taking up mountain biking … “might also explain why all the hills seem to have gotten mysteriously steeper, and why I stupidly went over the handlebars on a steep drop the other day and bruised multiple extremities. I’m not 30 anymore. I just feel like it.”

References

  1. Front. Psychol., 01 February 2018
  2. Front. Aging Neurosci., 07 June 2018
  3. Rippon I, Steptoe A. JAMA Internal Medicine, 175:307-308, 2015
  4. Yasuno, F., et al. (2015). Neurobiol. Aging 36, 2145–2152. doi: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2015.03.006

Dr. Emeran Mayer is a Distinguished Research Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Physiology and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Executive Director of the G. Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience at UCLA.


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