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Feeling younger can protect adults against health decline, study finds

Simply feeling younger can protect middle-aged and older adults against health decline by buffering against stress, an astonishing new study reveals. 

Researchers in Germany investigated whether people’s ‘subjective age’ – feeling younger than we actually are – had an effect on the detrimental effects of stress. 

Specifically, the experts looked into the effects of stress on functional health decline – steadily becoming unable to perform everyday tasks like climbing the stairs. 

A younger subjective age was associated with less of a steep decline in functional health, according to the team, from the German Centre of Gerontology in Berlin

People who felt younger had a greater sense of well-being, better cognitive functioning, less inflammation, lower risk of hospitalisation and even longer lives, they found.

You’re only as old as you feel! Researchers found ‘subjective age’ has a stress buffer effect. Particularly among older adults, a younger subjective age might help to buffer functional health decline

WHAT IS FUNCTIONAL HEALTH? 

Functional health is the degree to which people can perform everyday functions.

These include climbing up the stairs, getting into the bath or holding a knife and fork.

Old age is characterised by a steeper decline in functional health. 

But experts at the German Centre of Gerontology think the link between perceived stress and change in functional health is moderated by subjective age.  

‘Feeling younger than one’s chronological age is associated with various beneficial health outcomes,’ they say in their paper.

‘However, apart from these direct health effects, little is known about the role of subjective age as a potential “buffer”.

‘Our findings support the role of stress as a risk factor for functional health decline. 

‘[But], particularly among older adults, a younger subjective age might help to buffer functional health decline.’     

The researchers analysed three years of data from 5,039 participants in the German Ageing Survey, a longitudinal survey of residents of Germany aged 40 and older. 

The survey included questions about the amount of perceived stress in their lives, as well as their functional health – how much they were limited in daily activities such as walking, dressing and bathing. 

Participants also indicated their subjective age by answering the question, ‘How old do you feel?’

The researchers found, on average, participants who reported more stress in their lives experienced a steeper decline in functional health over three years.

Although the link between stress and functional health decline was stronger for older participants, subjective age seemed to provide a protective buffer. 

Among people who felt younger than their actual age, the link between stress and declines in functional health was weaker. 

That protective effect was strongest among the oldest participants, suggesting feeling younger than we actually are is most beneficial in old age. 

‘Generally, we know that functional health declines with advancing age, but we also know that these age-related functional health trajectories are remarkably varied,’ said study author Markus Wettstein, who is now at University of Heidelberg. 

‘As a result, some individuals enter old age and very old age with quite good and intact health resources, whereas others experience a pronounced decline in functional health, which might even result in need for long-term care.’ 

However, feeling younger likely stops having a protective effect against stress if the gap between subjective and actual age becomes too wide, according to Wettstein.

Feeling younger could help buffer middle-aged and older adults against the damaging effects of stress

Feeling younger could help buffer middle-aged and older adults against the damaging effects of stress 

‘Feeling younger to some extent might be adaptive for functional health outcomes, whereas “feeling too young” might be less adaptive or even maladaptive,’ he said.   

Researchers think new interventions to help people feel younger could reduce the harm caused by stress, although further study is needed to determine which would work best. 

According to Wettstein, one example is messaging campaigns that counteract ageism and negative age stereotypes, by promoting positive views on aging to help people feel younger. 

In addition, more general stress-reduction interventions and stress management training could prevent functional health loss among older adults.  

The study has been published in Psychology and Aging

MIDDLE-AGED PEOPLE ARE 20 PER CENT MORE STRESSED THAN TWO DECADES AGO: 2020 STUDY 

Middle-aged people are suffering almost 20 per cent more stress than they were two decades ago, a 2020 study revealed.

A team of researchers led by Penn State found that across all ages, there was a slight increase in daily stress in the 2010s compared to the 1990s. 

But when researchers restricted the sample to people between the ages of 45 and 64, there was a sharp increase in daily stress. 

The root of the problem lies in the ‘generational squeeze’ of having dependent parents on one side and grown-up children struggling to start a career on the other.

This adds up to the equivalent of an extra eleven weeks of anxiety a year, when compared to what their mothers and fathers went through in the 1990s. 

‘We thought with the economic uncertainty, life might be more stressful for younger adults,’ said paper author and psychologist David Almeida of Penn State University.

‘But we didn’t see that. We saw more stress for people at mid-life.

‘Maybe that’s because they have children who are facing an uncertain job market while they are also responsible for their own parents.

‘So it’s this generational squeeze that’s making stress more prevalent for people at mid-life.’  

The study was published May 7 in the journal American Psychologist. 


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