How Much of Ageing is in the Mind?

by SB Veda

We’ve all heard the adage, ‘You are only as old as you feel,’ but most of us believe it’s a consequence of lifestyle, environment and DNA. Well, research findings published this week from University College London has put added weight behind the expression.

Scientists asked nearly 6,500 adults 52 and older, “How old do you feel?” They followed up with participants eight years later and found that 86 percent of those who felt younger were still living compared to 75 percent who felt older than their age. About 82 percent of respondents who felt their real age were still alive at follow up. Most surveyed, about 70 percent, actually felt younger by at least three years.

Psychologists say we shouldn’t be surprised at the results: self-perceived age has been a ‘quick and dirty’ way to predict longevity in the mental health field for decades. Most psychologists claim that feeling younger than your actual age could be a combination of healthy lifestyle factors and a greater ‘will to live’.

The study follows previous research which linked happiness and having a sense of purpose in life with a lower risk of death. Co-author Andrew Steptoe, British Heart Foundation Professor of Psychology, said many older people feel younger than their actual age.

“People’s judgments about how old they feel are likely influenced by a number of factors – aches and pains, serious illness, feelings of vitality, what sorts of social and physical activity we do, and so on,” said Steptoe

‘What is interesting in this study is that when we took people’s health state, mobility and functioning into account, we still found an association between feeling older than one’s real age and greater mortality over the next eight years.”

Although baseline health, physical disability, and health behavior accounted for some of the association, after adjusting for all there remained a 41 percent greater mortality hazard in people who felt older than their actual age compared with those who felt younger than their actual age, according to the authors of the study.

A separate analysis of causes of death indicated a strong relationship between self-perceived age and cardiovascular death.

Medical professionals believe that feeling better will prompt you to adopt healthier habits that will keep you living a longer, healthier life.

‘This is quite significant,’ says TGC Psychology expert, Sanyay Sen. “That researchers conducted a longitudinal study, and followed participants through nearly a decade gives it (the study) high credibility.”

“It really puts a punch into what we’ve been saying for years. What’s interesting for me as a mental health practitioner, is the notion that the mutability of self-perceived age. If we can change perceptions about a patient’s age through psychological interventions, we might be able to extend their life.’

The report said maintaining a healthy weight and following medical advice were typical of the healthy living behaviours that were measured. The authors also mentioned other factors as being influential such as ‘greater resilience, sense of mastery and will to live’ among those who feel younger than their age.

The timing of the study is interesting, the results coming after the British Government announced improving national well-being to be a priority through a series of measures to be planned and implemented at workplaces and in the community.

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