For many years, my mum has been telling herself — and anyone else who will listen — that she’s 45 years old. She’s not actively trying to deceive us (I’m 37, so I’m not falling for it), she’s trying to deceive herself. She’d read somewhere that if you tell yourself you’re a younger age, you’ll start to feel younger.
She swears that lying to yourself is the key to a more youthful life, and science says she might actually be right.
As we get older, most of us feel younger
A 2018 study out of the University of Virginia of more than 30,000 people showed that once we pass age 25, we tend to think of ourselves as younger than we actually are. And Medical Xpress reports that this discrepancy grows as we get older:
For every decade that passes, people tend to feel that they have only gained five or six years. This is the equivalent to living Martian years as opposed to Earth years.
It turns out that this phenomenon may have rather important implications. A recent surge in research in this area has revealed that the extent to which people feel younger than they are is strongly associated with a whole range of health outcomes. People with a younger subjective age are less likely to suffer from diabetes, hypertension, depression, cognitive impairment and dementia.
If you think of yourself as younger, you may act younger in ways you don’t even realise, such as by walking faster, exercising more or engaging in activities that increase the grey matter in your brain.
If you feel younger, you’re more likely to live longer
Another study, out of University College London, found that those who thought of themselves as younger had a lower death rate than those who felt their own age or older. Thrive Global breaks down the numbers:
UCL researchers invited 6,489 people with an average age of slightly under 66 years to complete questionnaires that asked how they feel about their age. Almost 70 per cent said they felt three or more years younger than their actual age. About 25 per cent had a self-perceived age close to their real age. And about 5 per cent felt more than a year older.
The UCL researchers correlated this data with mortality over the next eight years. Of the people who had felt older, 24 per cent died, versus 18 per cent of those who had felt their age, and 12 per cent who had felt younger. To put it another way, people who felt younger than their actual age had a 50 per cent reduced risk of death, compared to people who felt older.
Chicken vs. egg?
Granted, if you’re already in good health, you probably do feel younger than someone your own age who has health struggles. So is it mind over body or body over mind? It’s probably a little bit of both, but unlike your true age, you can change your subjective age.
Healthline calls our subjective age “the magic number,” and a “predictor of your physical health, well-being, vitality, and even life expectancy.” And it can fluctuate over time:
Even if that 40 feels like 29 now, your 45 might actually feel like 50. That’s why we’ve got to keep tabs on our subjective age.
Check in with it often. Have you been trying new things, staying active, and paying attention to your overall well-being?
As for my mum, she has herself convinced enough about being in her mid-40s that whenever someone has a legitimate medical or professional reason to ask, she has to stop and calculate her true age.
And when I point out that our eight-year (and shrinking) age difference is starting to feel a little strange, she has an easy solution for me: “So tell yourself you’re 25.”