Feeling Young-A Prescription for Growing Old?

By Barrett, Anne E. | Aging Today, September/October 2012 | Go to article overview

Feeling Young-A Prescription for Growing Old?


Barrett, Anne E., Aging Today


Growing older in a society that devalues later life involves slowly acquiring a stigmatized identity. But people are resourceful; they have strategies for keeping positive selfimages intact.

One strategy is to hold on to a youthful self-image that defies one's birth certificate. There is debate over when this process begins and the extent to which it occurs, but studies tend to show that young adults report less age-discrepant identities than do older adults. A study of Danish adults by Rubin and Berntsen in Psychonomic Bulletin ö Review (13:5, 2006; springerlink.com/content/q2432v 486064kSpm/) finds a crossover age of 25: While younger adults felt older than their actual ages, older adults felt younger, with the discrepancy increasing until about age 40, when it levels off at around 20 percent of chronological age. This means the typical 40-year-old feels about 32, and 70-year-olds feel about 56. This pattern is common, with 70 percent of adults ages 40 or older feeling younger, and only 2 percent feeling older than their actual age.

When Is Middle Age?

Consistent with this pattern is how people view the age markers of different stages of life. Younger adults see middle and old age as occurring earlier than do older adults, suggesting that people postpone the stereotypical markers of life stages as they age. For example, a study by Logan and colleagues in Social Forces (71:2, 1992; sf.oxfordjournals.org/content/ 71/2/451. short) reports that Americans in their mid- to late 40s see middle age as ending near age 55, while those in their mid- to late 70s see it ending 20 years later- at about age 75.

These views of aging are good news for older adults' health. In a study of British adults in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (1114, 2007; online library.wiley.com/doi/10.1196/an nals.1396.021/abstract?), Demakakos and colleagues find that feeling youthful and viewing middle age as occurring later predict better self-assessed health, fewer functional limitations and lower risk of hypertension and diabetes. In fact, feeling youthful is more strongly predictive of health than any other factors, including commonly noted ones like chronological age, gender, marital status and socioeconomic status. A study of French adults by Gana and colleagues in Aging & Mental Health (8:1, 2010; tandfonline. com/doi/abs/10.1081/13607860310001613 347) reveals other benefits of youthful self-perceptions. They report that retirees with "exaggerated youthful bias" (at more than 15 years) had higher selfesteem, greater leisure time satisfaction and were less prone to being bored. These studies suggest that promoting illusions of youth could be a great boon to public health.

All Middle Age Perception Is Not Equal

But the fix may not be so quick: subjective views of aging are shaped by the very real, lived experiences of people- experiences that differ widely according to the resources they bring to their later years. Subjective aging roughly parallels objective experiences, with less youthful perceptions found among groups with circumscribed life chances, poor health and truncated life expectancy. …

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