When age creeps up on us we all start to feel our age. The question is, do you feel older or younger than your chronological age?
Feeling old is no fun! And, new research shows that confirms a relationship between well-being and even mortality.
I Can Relate!
In a matter of months, I shifted from feeling younger than my years to older than my years. Fortunately, I was able to bounce back.
Three months ago I had total knee replacement surgery to deal with the pain of osteoarthritis and the limitations that came from what eventually became a bone-on-bone situation. Walking became severely limited and dependence on painkillers affected my outlook and mood.
With the rapid decline over the last four pre-surgery months, I changed from an active person with an enthusiasm for life. I went from someone who felt younger than his years to feeling old and had lost the motivation to do the things I use to enjoy. This was not just about losing the ability to get around. I use to love to experiment with new cooking styles – to take new recipes and make them my own. I lost this zest and found cooking a chore and resorted to less interest and healthy meals to get by.
Sure, I had a physical disability but what was so surprising is it made me feel old and disengaged from life in general.
In spite of the pain of recovering my mood and outlook changed very soon after surgery. It is hard to tell how much of it was the strong pain-killers or trading the degenerative pain for the post-surgery trauma. Here is my take. Experiencing rapid decline and increasing pain was a downward spiral. Even if the drugs had an impact, my focus shifted to recovery, the positive gains that were evident every day and the potential for living a more engaged and active life. This was clearly attitudinal and fueled optimism.
The key point is that before I regained physical ability my outlook and mood and the sense of how old I felt changed. Once again I felt younger than my chronological age, more enthusiastic about living life rather than getting through the day.
That was my subjective experience. Here is what a large-scale longitudinal study about the association between “feeling old,” healthy and even mortality. Yes, people you feel older than their chronological age are at greater risk of dying sooner.
It Doesn’t take Surgery!
I am thankful that outlook and sense of age change even if it took a major surgery. But there is growing evidence that one’s subjective feeling of age can be induced by feedback positive feedback about how one performs relative to age peers. Interestingly, it is the positive feedback and not the performance that that matters.
Why does this matter? It shows just how important outlook and attitude are towards health. Moreover, these studies demonstrate that you can change your self-perception about how old you feel and, as a result, improve your health and well-being. As you will see from the studies below – it doesn’t take much to turn things around.
In a study titled, “Feeling Younger, Being Stronger” the idea was to see if people could be made to feel younger and a whether this would make any difference to their physical performance. The hand grip strength was tested for all the people in the study. Their self-perception of how old they felt was also assessed.
In the experimental condition, the people were told that their performance was higher than 80% than the norms for their age-peers. The control group received no information.
Both groups were retested on both grip strength and self-perception of age. The people receiving positive feedback about their performance not only felt younger on the retest, their grip strength improved significantly. The control group did not should any difference in either the test-retest.
What’s going on here? Most scientists believe that we start developing negative stereotype about aging in early adulthood and as we age the negative stereotype actually impact how health and performance. The above study shows that negative stereotype can become a reality – and, importantly, that we can over-ride the stereotype. Learning techniques to do so could be an important part of successful aging.
One additional note about feeling stronger. A weakening of grip strength is a good predictor of declining health and even lifespan as we get older. (reference). Grip strength also impacts one’s ability to carry out the daily tasks of living. It is one of the early sign of losing one’s ability to live independently. The concept of “Feeling Younger, Being Stronger” could make a difference.
Another example of positive inducement comes from a study on walking. The speed of older individual’s walking has been found to predict their overall functional health and lifespan.
In the experimental condition, the gait and walking speed of older adults were tested. Then, they subliminally saw age-peers walking with a gait that was faster than age-norms. Subliminally, in that attention was not directed to the speed of walking. This simple inducement resulted in a significant increase in walking speed in during retest. The average increase in walking speed was comparable to the gains made by older adults who participated in rigorous exercise programs for several weeks.
The similar negative-aging stereotype has been demonstrated in memory test and cognitive performance, including increased performance with priming with positive stereotypes.
While negative-aging stereotype can influence well-being, it is increasingly clear that this is a performance bias that can be overcome with exposure to positive influences. What is less obvious is how this can be translated into everyday ways to help older adults to feel younger than their chronological age.
One way to make this happen is to get frequent exposure to older adults who act and perform as if they are younger that their age. I see this every week when I play in a Bocce League and watch 80 and 90-year-olds consistently make great shots. The point is driven home when they defeat our team which is 20 years younger.
Comments and your observation are especially welcome on this topic.