How Young/Old Do You Feel?

Do you feel much younger than your real age?

A recent study, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and reported in the Wall Street Journal, suggests that those who feel younger than their real age probably have a better memory and better cognitive function than those who feel older.

The study, conducted by researchers in France, analyzed data from over 1,300 men and women, ages 50 to 75. They’d originally been part of a U.S. study in the mid-1990s.

The respondents were asked how old they felt most of the time. They were also asked for their medical info and how often they engaged in moderate or vigorous exercise.

Following these people for 10 years allowed the researchers to assess how well they later did on tests of memory and executive function (defined as the capacity to plan and the ability to carry out complex tasks). The study found that the participants, on average, felt 19% younger than their chronological age.

Overall, 89% of the group felt younger than their actual age. But 11% felt older, and these individuals scored 25% lower on memory and cognitive tests than those who felt younger.

Factors like gender, education, marital status, and chronic diseases were ruled out.

The researchers concluded that people who feel older than their real age should probably be closely monitored because this may be an early marker of impaired cognition, leading to dementia.

The Journal also noted other research showing that a younger self-image is more common in physically active people with a lower body-mass index.

The findings in the French study coincide with a large body of data emerging from a recent AARP survey of 1,800 Americans, ages 40 to 90. AARP Magazine set forth the data in an article called “You’re Old, I’m Not: How Americans “really feel about aging.”

Although the respondents acknowledged facing challenges, they also revealed “some surprisingly rosy attitudes.” For example, 85% said they weren’t “old” yet.

When asked at which age is a person “old,” respondents’ answers depended on their age. People in their 40s said 63, those in their 50s said 68, those in their 60s said 73, while those in their 70s said 75. (One 90-year-old woman said that a woman isn’t “old” until she hits 95.)

The older people were, the “less hampered” they appeared to feel by their aging bodies. They were asked whether they agreed with the following statements:

1. Problems with my physical health do not hold me back from doing what I want.

2. I have more energy now than I expected for my age.

The physical-health answers were somewhat surprising. While 58% of people in their 40s agreed with the first statement, the rates of agreement went up with each age group. Those in their 60s and 70s agreed (that their physical-health problems didn’t hold them back) at the rate of 69%.

On the energy question, the results were also illuminating. Only 24% of those in their 40s expected to have more energy at their age (they probably expected to be pretty energetic), but 55% of people in their 70s said they had more energy than they’d expected to have at their age.

One new bit of information: According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 69 million Americans are not as “young at heart”—literally—as they think they are. The CDC just found that more than 40% of Americans had hearts that were five or more years older than their actual ages. Wow! Does this contradict the research on how young we feel?

Not really. CDC Director Tom Frieden said its “heart risk calculator” was just an easy way to reveal someone’s risk of heart attack or stroke. Frieden added that learning one’s heart age can be “a clear call to take charge of your health.” Let’s therefore keep this finding in perspective: all it really does is underscore the importance of your overall health.

So…how old do you feel? Staying active and avoiding excessive weight-gain no doubt improve your odds of feeling younger. But here’s the most important thing to keep in mind: Forget about numbers!

Don’t obsess about your chronological age. Don’t think in terms of “young” and “old.” If your physical health is reasonably good, and your overall life-situation is likewise, keep living an active and rewarding life.

Jonathan Swift wrote, “No wise [person] ever wished to be younger.” Maybe not. But as someone else once said, “We are all getting older, but we don’t have to GET OLD.”

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