New research reveals there might, in fact, be truth in the cliché “You’re only as young as you feel.”
Scientists from the University College London (UCL) surveyed thousands of English men and women, asking them a simple question: “How old do you feel?”
The average response to this question was 56.8 years old—despite the fact that the actual average age of the study participants was 65.8. Study authors weren’t overly surprised by this finding. “Older people typically feel younger than their chronological age,” they write, “and it is thought that those who feel younger than their actual age have reduced mortality.”
To test their theory, researchers tracked the cancer and cardiovascular disease death rates of the adults they surveyed for eight years. Their conclusions lend an air of credibility to the idea that a person’s perception—how old they feel—has a significant impact on their overall health.
After taking into account pre-existing health conditions, mobility problems, cognitive issues, depression and smoking, study authors found that people who felt three years younger than their real age (nearly 70 percent of participants) were half as likely to die due to heart troubles as those who felt one year older (about five percent of participants). Unfortunately, when it came to cancer, believing in one’s youthfulness didn’t appear to have an impact.
Finding your inner fountain of youth
America and many Westernized countries are obsessed with youth. You merely have to open the nearest women’s lifestyle magazine to be bombarded by advertisements for anti-aging serums and wrinkle creams. While chasing eternal youth via cosmetics and surgical procedures may be a fruitless endeavor, this latest study—along with previous investigations that resulted in similar conclusions—points to the benefits of retaining the spirit of your inner child.
This doesn’t mean you have to resort to taking selfies or listening to Taylor Swift (unless, of course, you want to).
Simply adopting an optimistic approach to the aging process can bestow undeniable physical and mental benefits, even for those who aren’t in the best health, according to Dr. Dilip Jeste, Director of the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging and the President of the American Psychiatric Association. Jeste was not involved in the UCL study, but he has conducted research that uncovered a mental phenomenon called the “paradox of aging.” Apparently, declining physical health appears to have very little impact on how an older person views their aging process. As Jeste says, “Physical health is neither necessary nor sufficient for feeling good about one’s own aging.”
So what is the key to maintaining an optimistic approach to aging?
Jeste’s recipe includes three ingredients: resilience (the ability to adapt and persevere in the face of hardship), optimism (being able to recognize both the good and the bad in a given situation) and the absence of depression.
He provides a few strategies for approaching the aging process in a productive way:
Be logical: It’s important to strike a balance between pessimism and unrealistic optimism, says Jeste. For instance, if you have cancer, you won’t be able to cure yourself simply by thinking happy thoughts. Instead, seek out the treatment options that are right for you and remain confident that they will help you.
Seek support: A support network of friends and family is essential for maintaining mental and emotional wellbeing, especially as you age. Social support provides a stalwart shield against disease-causing stress of all kinds.
Tame tension: Whether it’s taking a walk, adopting a yoga practice or reading a book, make sure to regularly engage in activities that you find enjoyable. Taking a break from the pressure and strain of everyday life is essential for building your resilience reserves.
Manage depression: About one in ten American adults suffer from depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Women age 45-64 have a higher risk of developing the symptoms of depression, including excessive fatigue, irritability, feeling hopeless, loss of interest in hobbies and suicidal tendencies. According to Jeste, recognizing and managing depression is vitally important to maintaining good mental and physical health as you age. Consult with a doctor if you feel you or your loved one may be depressed.