The Connection Between Mental Health, Age Perception, & Longevity

You know that old saying, you’re only as old as you feel? Have you ever thought about whether it’s really true? It turns out, it just might be. In a recent study on perception and age, scientists found that people who perceive themselves as older than they actually are tend to show signs of accelerated aging compared to those who perceive themselves as younger.

As we celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s take a closer look at the relationship between mental outlook and longevity–and the steps we can take to maintain positive perceptions of aging.







Reference Lab

May 9, 2022

01 What is mental health?

Before we dive into the research, it’s important to define exactly what we mean by mental health. Mental health is our ability to cope with everyday stressors, to believe in ourselves and our capabilities, and to make meaningful connections with others.

So what does our perception of our age have to do with mental health? Perceiving ourselves as older than we really are can be a sign that we don’t believe as strongly in our own abilities and no longer feel optimistic about our lives–key indicators of lower emotional wellbeing and self-esteem.

02 How do we define our perception of age?

To understand how our perception of aging impacts what’s actually happening in our bodies, scientists have identified three important terms: [2]

  • Subjective age: Also called psychological age, subjective age is the answer to the question, “How old do you feel?”
  • Chronological age: How old you really are
  • Age identity: The difference between subjective age and chronological age. People who feel much older than they actually are will have a higher age identity while people who feel much younger than they actually are will have a lower age identity.

03 Mental Health and Aging

When facing some of the more difficult aspects of aging, being told to maintain a positive, youthful mindset may seem insensitive and unrealistic. But ongoing research in the field of psychological aging has revealed that it might actually be sound advice.

In fact, studies have shown that our perception of aging may have a greater impact on our survival than a number of influential factors including gender, economic stability, loneliness and functional health! [3] One study even discovered that those who reported positive self-perceptions of the aging process lived an average of seven-and-a-half years longer than those who negatively viewed aging.[4]

Individuals with an older psychological age also tend to have lower resilience to stress, which can further accelerate the physical aging process. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which our negative perceptions of aging contribute to the onset of aging markers, ultimately accelerating the rate at which we age.[5]

04 What can you do?

Changing your mindset may seem like no small thing, especially if you have a genetic predisposition to mental health factors like depression and anxiety, which may make it more difficult to maintain a positive perception of aging. The good news? There are small steps you can take to reframe your mindset and shift your relationship with aging.

Understand Aging As Malleable:

To tap into your inner optimist, educate yourself on the biological realities of aging, including the fact that aging is actually a malleable process. When it comes to what’s actually happening inside your body, chronological age is really nothing but a number. In fact, aging can be both accelerated and slowed based on our daily habits. This means that it’s actually possible to be in your 60s and have a biological age equivalent to someone in their 40s! Plus, it’s really never too late: making small changes, even later in life, can reduce your biological age and decelerate your aging process.

Sleep Plenty To Improve Resilience:

Consistently getting plenty of sleep has been found to boost both physical and mental well-being, including our ability to view our lives optimistically. In fact, insufficient rest can decrease our ability to regulate our emotional stress response, which further accelerates aging. [6] Studies have shown that people who get less than 5 hours of sleep per night also have a harder time repairing skin damage following UV exposure compared to those who sleep seven to nine hours each night. [7] Something as simple as turning the lights off an hour earlier can have a cascading beneficial effect on the physical aging process and your mental perceptions of aging.

Tap Into Community:

Seeking out encouragement from others and preserving healthy channels of communication with your loved ones can do wonders for maintaining a younger subjective age. Building acceptance around aging is a lot easier when you have friends and family members who also embrace your journey and see your evolution as a beautiful process.

Conclusion

  • Studies have shown that the younger we feel, the better our health outcomes
  • Mental health encompasses our emotional and social well-being, and has strong connections to our psychological age
  • A lower psychological age is related to positive health outcomes, longevity, and a minimized stress response, which in turn contributes to better physical and emotional well-being
  • Getting sufficient sleep, understanding the aging process, and seeking out the support of others are all steps you can take to lower your subjective age
Tips
References

Reviewed by Alessandra Zonari, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) and Co-Founder of OneSkin

Alessandra earned her Master’s degree in stem cell biology, and her PhD in skin regeneration and tissue engineering at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil in collaboration with the 3B’s Research Group in Portugal. Alessandra did a second post-doctoral at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. She is a co-inventor of three patents and has published 20 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals.

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