You’re Only as Old as You Feel

A few intriguing studies suggest that a youthful frame of mind can have a powerful effect. When scientists trick older people into feeling younger, most tend to instantly become more capable. In a 2013 experiment by Dr. Stephan and colleagues, for example, people’s grip strength significantly improved after they were told that they were stronger than most people their age. A Chinese study published last November in the journal Aging & Mental Health found that people performed better on a memory task after being told they were sharper than others their age.

Whether these findings translate into real-world situations, however, is uncertain. In a 2018 German study, investigators asked people in their 60s, 70s and early 80s how old they felt, then measured their walking speed in two settings. Participants walked 20 feet in the laboratory while being observed and timed. They also wore belts containing an accelerometer while out and about in their daily lives. Those who reported feeling younger tended to walk faster during the lab assessment. But feeling younger had no impact on their walking speed in real life. Instead, the researchers found, the ones who walked faster were those who walked the most.

What makes subjective age such a powerful predictor? Dr. Stephan believes that people possess intuitive information about their physical abilities, mental sharpness and emotional stability, all of which gets distilled into a single meaningful number.

But critics assert that for many, subjective age simply reflects cultural obsessions with youth. People cultivate a younger identity to fend off stereotypes of frailty and senility, said David Weiss, a life span psychologist at the University of Leipzig. “If old age weren’t negatively valued, you wouldn’t have the need to say that you feel younger,” he said.

Indeed, in cultures where elders are respected for their wisdom and experience, people don’t even understand the concept of subjective age, he said. When a graduate student of Dr. Weiss’s did research in Jordan, the people he spoke with “would say, ‘I’m 80. I don’t know what you mean by ‘How old do I feel?’”

Paradoxically, older people may hold warm feelings for their generation even as they feel distaste for people their age. In a 2012 experiment, Dr. Weiss and a colleague divided 104 people aged 65 to 88 into two groups. Everyone had to complete five sentences, but one group was asked to describe people their age, while the other was asked about their generation.

The first group wrote things like “People of my age are afraid and worry about the future” and “People of my age often talk about their illnesses.” The generation-oriented group displayed a stronger sense of empowerment and meaning. They wrote things like “People of my generation were the 68ers who founded a more civil society,” a reference to the student protest movements of the late 1960s, and “People of my generation should pass on their life experience to the youth.” One way to combat internalized ageism, Dr. Weiss suggests, is to identify with one’s generation.