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. 



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