Feeling Younger Than Your Age May Be Good For Your Health

An older adult and an adult woman laughing together

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that feeling younger than your age may protect against the negative consequences of stress.
  • Stress can play a role in triggering and worsening health issues, such as increased blood pressure.
  • Engaging in physical activity and managing stress in other ways can help with healthy aging.

If you feel like you're seventy going on fifty, this could be good news for your health. New research finds that feeling younger than your age may protect against the harmful effects of stress.

Researchers from the German Centre of Gerontology analyzed three years of data from over 5,000 participants from the German Ageing Survey. The survey asked its participants, who were 40 years old and older, questions that fell into the three following categories:

  • Functional age: Whether subjects had any limitations in completing 10 everyday activities, including bathing.
  • Subjective age: How old the subjects of the survey feel versus their chronological age.
  • Perceived stress: If the subjects had issues in their life that they felt were overwhelming.

The researchers found that feeling younger may act as a protective barrier to stress, which may contribute to stress-related health issues. "Notably, our finding that a younger subjective age has a stress-buffering role also implies that an older subjective age is a vulnerability factor that exacerbates the risk of poor physical and mental health from stressful situations," the researchers wrote.

The study was published in the Psychology and Aging journal this spring.

Managing Stress Is Key

This study's findings, according to James C. Jackson, PsyD, assistant director of the ICU Recovery Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, highlight the positive aspects of feeling younger than one's chronological age. "It supports the notion that self-perceptions of aging can offset and perhaps prevent the negative effects of stress and highlights the potential value of seeing yourself as young rather than old," he tells Verywell.

Taking steps to reduce stress, which may contribute to a faster decline in health, in turn, may be more urgent for older adults. "Given that older adults are more susceptible to decline in functional health than middle-aged individuals, such interventions might be of a higher importance and necessity in this age group," the researchers wrote.

Beyond subjective age, there are other psychological factors that potentially play a role in buffering stress-related health issues, including maintaining a positive outlook on life. "It's not just about feeling younger, but there's also something about having a more optimistic attitude and being more mindfully present in the moment you're in," Scott Kaiser, MD, a board-certified geriatrician and director of geriatric cognitive health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells Verywell.

The Consequences of Stress

Chronic stress puts people at risk for many different health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. But stress is nearly inevitable as people balance work, families, school, and even a pandemic. "The problem is, we have all of these stimuli in our in modern life where it's just repeated 'stress... stress response, stress, stress response,'" Kaiser says. "It's constantly being triggered."

While stress can play a role in someone's mental health in the short term, chronic stress can also cause long-term issues. "We know so many things about [stress] that it raises cortisol levels [and] it produces different brain waves," Lori Russell-Chapin, PhD, a professor in Bradley University's Online Masters of Counseling Program, tells Verywell. "I think stress impacts aging immensely, especially if you don't have coping strategies to eradicate them."

Not all stress, however, is bad for people. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the "fight or flight" response that people experience under stress can be helpful during dangerous moments or serve as an occasional motivator.

And researchers stress that this study does "not imply that older adults are necessarily more susceptible to all detrimental consequences of stress."

It Is Never Too Late to Take Care of Your Health

Even if you're in your fifties or sixties, it's not too late to mitigate stress-related aging issues. "When we think about the prevention of the future problem, early is better than late, [for example] deciding to stop smoking in your twenties is preferable to stopping in your forties," Jackson says. "But, in general, we believe that addressing issues 'now' rather than 'never' is preferable."

You can start by incorporating a daily walk into your schedule. Jackson says that staying mentally active is important as well, in addition to physical activity. "The values of continuing to stay active, to be deliberate about living rather than passive, to set goals and to actively pursue them, are values that can help people retain vitality and relative youth, even as they age," he says.

What This Means For You

It's never too late to start managing stress in your life. Engaging in exercise, meditation, yoga, and even reframing your thoughts in a more positive light can all help.

The Limitations of Acting 'Too' Young

While feeling young can provide health benefits, there may be some consequences to acting too young. "Feeling too young could be maladaptive to the extent that it could potentially cause people to ignore biological realities, to test limits in ways that are unhelpful, to not be appropriately aware of limitations in ways that could ultimately be harmful to one's health," Jackson says.

Older adults should especially take added safety precautions when exercising outdoors. The National Institute on Aging recommends you do the following:

  • Carry your ID with emergency contact information and bring a small amount of cash and a cell phone with you, especially if walking alone
  • Let others know where you’re going and when you plan to be back
  • Stick to well-lit places with other people around
  • Wear sturdy, appropriate shoes for your activity that give you proper footing

What You Can Do Right Now

Building and maintaining social relationships can be an important step in maintaining your health and limiting stress. Kaiser emphasizes that programs that partner older adults with younger people can benefit both age groups.

These relationships, either informal or through community programs, could be important in curbing loneliness. "You get the social connection, which we know social isolation and loneliness are extremely potentially damaging to our health," Kaiser says. "All that loneliness and social isolation have negative health impacts on par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day."

Receiving mental health treatment or other therapeutic measures, like practicing self-care, may also be helpful as people age. "Every single time we do something therapeutic, we're releasing endorphins and neurotransmitters to help us be healthy," Russell-Chapin says.

Other measures that you can do to manage stress and take of your cognitive and physical health include:

  • Meditation
  • Cognitive puzzles, like Sudoku or crossword puzzles
  • Yoga
  • Breathing exercises
  • Cognitive restructuring, or trying to look at life in a different way
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Article Sources
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