The saying, "You're only as old as you feel", takes on a whole new meaning, according to this research. Turns out simply feeling younger than you actually are can be protective as you age.

Karla Walsh
May 10, 2021
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The average human adult brain weighs about 2 ½ pounds, scientists believe. But although it might be small in proportion to the rest of our body, this organ is mighty.

Adults who think and feel younger have better cognitive functioning, less chronic inflammation, lower risk for hospitalization, experience a heightened sense of sense of well-being and might even live longer than peers of the same age who report feeling older.

A new study published in the American Psychological Association (APA) journal Psychology and Aging crunched the numbers on 3 years of stats on more than 5,000 participants 40 and older in the "German Ageing Survey". They were polled about stress levels, lifestyle habits (including how much they felt limited in activities of daily living like walking, putting on clothes and bathing) and their subjective age by answering, "How old do you feel?"

Portrait of senior woman on cafe terrace
Credit: Getty Images / Yagi Studio

On average, those who reported higher levels of stress noticed larger declines in their ability to complete those typical daily activities over the course of the three years. You may have guessed that, but here's where things really get interesting: Subjective age (how old these individuals thought they felt) seemed to provide a protective "buffer". Those who felt younger than their actual chronological age showed a weaker connection between stress and daily activity challenges, as in they had an easier time completing them. This protective buffer was strongest among the oldest participants.

"Generally, we know that functional health declines with advancing age, but we also know that these age-related functional health trajectories are remarkably varied. As a result, some individuals enter old age and very old age with quite good and intact health resources, whereas others experience a pronounced decline in functional health, which might even result in need for long-term care," says study lead author Markus Wettstein, Ph.D., in a brief from the APA. "Our findings support the role of stress as a risk factor for functional health decline, particularly among older individuals, as well as the health-supporting and stress-buffering role of a younger subjective age."

So, how can you benefit from this new information? Of course, reducing stress is still an important part of staying young and vibrant. But keeping up with activities that make you feel young—be it playing board games, whipping up a new recipe, completing 9 holes of golf or rocking a crossword puzzle—may also help you feel young...and as a result help you to stay younger and healthier longer.

More research is needed to determine the healthiest gap between real age and subjective age, Wettstein adds.

"Feeling younger to some extent might be adaptive for functional health outcomes, whereas 'feeling too young' might be less adaptive or even maladaptive," he says.

As we await more news on this fascinating front, check out neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta's #1 tip for keeping your brain sharp as you age, and try eating more along the lines of THIS diet to keep your mind (and body) feeling young.