You’re only as old as you feel, scientists are finding: The connection between mental health, age perception, & longevity

Baseball legend Satchel Paige once famously said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” While this may seem like an idealistic sentiment, scientists are now finding that Paige may have been on to something. In a recent study about perception and age, scientists found that those who perceived themselves as older were in fact biologically older (according to their DNA), pointing to the strong body-mind correlation.[1] As we celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, it is important to highlight the role that mental health has on longevity and the steps we can take to promote positive perceptions of aging and maintain a youthful spirit, body and mind.








Reference Lab

May 28, 2021


01What is mental health?

Mental health is a measure of our ability to cope with everyday stressors, to believe in ourselves and our capabilities, and to make meaningful connections with others. Perception of age lies within our emotional well-being, and is strongly influenced by our behavior and self-esteem.

02How do we define our perception of age?

We will use the following terms when discussing the process of aging with respect to psychological age[2]:

  • Subjective age answers the question, “How old do you feel?” It can be used interchangeably with psychological age
  • Chronological age is how old you really are
  • Age identity is the difference between subjective age and chronological age

03Mental Health and Aging

Ongoing research in the field of psychological aging has further elucidated the connection between a youthful mindset and a lower subjective age (i.e. “How old do you feel?”). Several studies have reported strong correlations between longevity and a younger age identity. In fact, perceptions of aging have been demonstrated to have a greater impact on survival above factors such as gender, economic stability, loneliness and even 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 have also been demonstrated to have lower resilience to stress, which can further accelerate the physical aging process. The result is an unfavorable cycle, in which negative perceptions of aging contribute to the onset of aging markers, and ultimately fuel the rate of biological aging.[5]

04What can you do?

Given the unfavorable effects of an older psychological age on our overall well-being, you may be wondering: what can I do to ensure I maintain positive mental perceptions of aging? While there are factors, such as genetic predisposition, that are out of our control, there are several steps you can take to keep your subjective age young.

Firstly, we want to share some good news with you. Aging is a malleable process from a biological point of view. This means you could be in your 60s and have a biological age equivalent to your 40s! Taking charge of your habits and daily choices is the first step towards a younger self; cultivating thoughts of confidence, optimism and excitement is an essential part of this process.

Take the attitude of May Musk for example. She recently tweeted: “It's great to be 73!” And she looks to be at her highest point in life.

Secondly, consistently getting plenty of sleep has been found to boost both physical and mental well-being, including our ability to optimistically view and take healthy actions to delay various aging biomarkers. In fact, insufficient rest can decrease our ability to regulate our emotional stress response, which further accelerates aging.[6] More specifically, for individuals sleeping five hours or less each night, studies have demonstrated a decreased effectiveness of the skin’s repair mechanisms following exposure to UV light compared to those who slept seven to nine hours each night.[7] Therefore, 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.

Furthermore, from a psychological perspective, there are many ways to view physical signs of aging more positively and adjust your expectations of longevity.[8] Educating yourself about the biological foundation of age-related changes is a great place to start when seeking out ways to counteract the negative implications of aging. By doing so, you can help your mind understand and accept these changes, while translating this knowledge into healthier lifestyle choices. In fact, just by reading this post, you are already taking strides towards positive perceptions of aging and a lower psychological age! Now you’re ready to take action by adding more nutritious meals to your day, exercising, or even picking up a hobby that’s been in the back of your mind for a while.

Lastly, seeking out encouragement from others and preserving healthy channels of communication with support systems can do wonders to maintain a younger subjective age. Building a culture of acceptance is just as important and beneficial as any other action to fostering a positive mindset. Rather than battling this inevitable process, embrace the journey and the marks it leaves; the wrinkles on our faces are just the results of years of smiles, while the scars we bear are beautiful badges of the complete lives we have lived. Ride this wave of pride and adopt healthy habits and actions in the years to come. Take journalist and leading feminist activist Betty Friedan’s word for it — as she so eloquently once said, “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”

05Conclusion

  • Mental health encompasses our emotional and social well-being, and has strong connections with our subjective, or psychological, age
  • A lower psychological age bears strong connections with positive health outcomes, longevity, and a minimized stress response, which in turn contributes to better physical and emotional well-being
  • Getting sufficient sleep, proactively identifying signs of aging and reading about the aging process, and seeking out the support of others are all steps you can take to lower your subjective age
  • After all, we are only as old as we think we are!
References