The Cliché Is True: You Really Are as Young as You Feel
Turns out there’s lots of science to support the idea that age is just a number, but after our 20s, we have more and more trouble reconciling our physical and mental ages.
Aging, it turns out, is nothing but a cosmic mistake. Why? Because if you feel you are younger than your chronological age, then you actually are. And there’s a flood of new science to prove it.
One study from the University of Virginia states that at least 70 percent of more than 30,000 subjects reported to feel significantly younger than their chronological age—a divergence so drastic that the scientists invoked the red planet: “Past age 25 or so, subjective aging appears to occur on Mars, where one Earth decade equals only 5.3 Martian years.”
The discrepancy becomes more pronounced the older we get. We look at our chronological age and know with absolute certainty that we’re not there yet. This cosmic wrongness causes ennui every time a birthday comes around. Friends offer platitudes—“Age is just a number”—that turn out to be the truth. We do suffer from a mass delusion. And it happens to be beneficial for us.
After analyzing the mental and physical health of test subjects who feel younger than their chronological age, scientists are in agreement that our chronological age is irrelevant and our subjective age is what matters. Our subjective age is not how old we wish to be, but how old we feel. It is a multidimensional construct marked by one or more of the following indicators: felt age; biological age (looks and physical health); societal age (how we act and what we do); and intellectual age (interests and pursuits). Consider yourself lucky if you feel young, look young, participate in youthful activities and have the curiosity of a child—because those are the indicators for how old you really are.
Feeling younger has many benefits. According to an article in the Journal of Personality by researchers from Florida State University and Montpelier University, it makes us into better people because it fosters “openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness.”
It makes us healthier because it corresponds directly to fewer chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and depression. It makes us stronger and yields greater benefits from fitness regimens. The next time you think Cher might be just another lifted-to-the-limit, wrinkle-free septuagenarian freak, keep in mind that she claims to have a rigorous fitness routine and is able to hold a plank for five minutes.
Arguably the greatest benefit of a younger subjective age is how it affects the aging of the brain. When MRI scans were used to predict chronological age, it turned out that brain aging is much more closely related to the subjective age than the chronological age, and it’s an important marker for mental and cognitive health.
So there! Didn’t we know it all along that the number attached to our age is a mistake, a mistake of cosmic proportions, just way off our realty?
Scientists also try to figure out why we feel this discrepancy between our subjective and chronological age. One thesis is that it’s a form of self-defense against stereotypes.
At the age of 18, a person is supposed to suddenly turn into an adult. At 30, one should be well on the path toward an amazing career. At 40, all should be settled and one is ready for the mid-life crisis. At 50, ageism kicks in. At 65, one is supposed to be a senior citizen and ready for the scrap heap. No matter what our chronological age, most of us are not ready for it, and we resist.
In many science fiction novels, people live hundreds of years due to future advancements in science and rejuvenation medicine. We humans are a relatively young species, and maybe our brains are already wired to accommodate a much longer life expectancy. A girl born today might easily reach 100. Should we as a species make it, let’s say, another 6,000 years, we can expect to live much longer. Perhaps in the future, subjective and chronological age will be in sync again, and a 50-year-old woman will feel like the spring chicken she actually is.
This new scientific certainty that subjective age is more relevant than chronological age should lead us to rethink our preconceptions. How valid is the age-old lament about an ever-worsening worship and pursuit of youth? Dorian Gray sold his soul in exchange for youth. Selling your soul is a bit old school—and how would one go about finding a buyer anyway? We don’t sell, we buy—crèmes, serums, fillers, and every any imaginable kind of plastic surgery. Many Millennials use Botox as a preemptive strike against wrinkles, and the global anti-aging market will soon surpass $300 billion. Next time we dismiss a youthful look by saying, “Yeah, but he definitely had some work done,” we might think twice. Should we belittle people who want their looks to correspond with their real age? Shouldn’t our stereotypes about what’s age-appropriate—in looks, fashion and behavior—go out the window?
Science warns about the danger of unintentionally succumbing to these stereotypes because, once accepted, they will become the reality.
While appearances matter, how you feel might be more important than how you look. Getting older is by default a downhill slide, and most of us prefer to slide more slowly. As Haruki Murakami wrote in his novel Dance, Dance, Dance: “Unfortunately, the clock is ticking, the hours are going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing and regrets mounting.”
Not letting the future recede is author Dan Sullivan’s idea of a fulfilling life. “The moment your past becomes bigger than your future, you die,” he told The New York Times. That’s a little harsh. Those who know with absolute certainty that their future cannot be bigger than their past might still complete a mind-blowing bucket list that would outshine the lifestyle of a boring, prematurely aged 30-year-old.
Whatever our age, most of us do not accept age or aging the same way our parents and grandparents did—and we should be proud of it. Those old enough to remember the TV series Sex and the City will remember Miranda wondering, “Whatever happened to aging gracefully?” To which Carrie replied, “It got old.”