People who feel young at heart are more likely to pursue physical activity, even it’s an activity that’s challenging.
A youthful attitude may lead to better eating and exercising habits.
The great baseball pitcher Satchel Paige once asked a profound question: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” A research letter published online Dec. 15, 2014, in JAMA Internal Medicine pursued the wisdom of that remark. The research team asked about 6,500 men and women with an average age of 65: “How old do you feel you are?” About 70% felt three or more years younger than their actual (chronological) age. Others felt their age, and still others felt older than their age.
Next came the really interesting part: eight years after study participants answered the age question, researchers determined which ones were still alive:
86% of those who’d said they felt younger than their actual age
82% of those who’d felt their actual age
75% of those who’d felt older.
Does feeling young at heart actually lead to a longer life? The study could not address that question directly. But researchers did find that the relationship between self-perceived age and cardiovascular death was strong.
“Feeling younger or older itself may have an effect on our health,” says Dr. Ronald D. Siegel, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
How it works
People who report feeling older than they are may be suffering from depression, which, in turn, increases the risk of heart disease. They may also simply have an accurate assessment of their state of health.
However, it is also possible that feeling younger leads to healthier lifestyle. One way this might happen is by encouraging exercise. Good health is associated with getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week. “When people see themselves as old, they’re more likely to abandon physical challenges that feel difficult—’I don’t think I should ski any more, I’m an old man.’ When people feel younger psychologically, they’re more likely to pursue physical exercise, even if it’s challenging,” Dr. Siegel explains.
Feeling younger might also improve health by influencing diet. “If we feel old, we’re likely to treat food with the attitude ‘I won’t live much longer, so I might as well eat whatever I feel like.’ If we feel young, we may have more of a ‘future’ orientation that will lead us to eat with future health in mind.”
Tips to grow younger
Reach a younger state of mind by learning new things, living in the present moment, and developing a sense of purpose.
Feeling younger inspires a sense of resilience that keeps people young. But what if you’re not feeling especially bouncy? Consider the following suggestions from psychologist Dr. Ronald D. Siegel, the faculty editor of Positive Psychology, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School. (You can find out more at www.health.harvard.edu/PP.)
1 Challenge yourself to try new things, learn new ideas, and develop new skills. Realizing that most human abilities follow a “use it or lose it” pattern can motivate you to stay active in all realms of your life. Challenging your brain helps to keep thinking skills sharp. Ideas include learning a new language, a new style of cooking, or a new dance step; becoming technically savvy on a computer, tablet, or smartphone; reading books about current trends or philosophies; and listening to new kinds of music. Look for classes at local colleges and activity centers that spark your interest.
2 Bring your attention repeatedly to the present moment. This can be done through formal mindfulness meditation, yoga, or informal mindfulness practice. It can help you to appreciate this moment, rather than becoming lost in regrets about the past or imagining future deterioration. You can find meditation and yoga classes at community centers, hospitals, and gyms.
3 Develop a sense of meaning in life. Focus on something larger than yourself, whether that’s connecting with people close to you or helping improve the lives of others by volunteering. Or commit yourself to a hobby you love, such as gardening, attending the theater, dancing, or reading. “When our focus is just on our own immediate pleasure or pain, we’re much more likely to have difficulty with the aging process,” says Dr. Siegel.