Aging has always fascinated me—and it’s largely for this reason that I study it. Another is because I’ve never felt my age.
I’ve always felt older. As a tyke, I remember my strong and unmistakable attraction to the adult table (sorry mom) when most of my peers preferred to ogle at each other’s collection of beanie babies or fire spitballs from their bendy straws. It was never my shtick.
At 24, I probably feel closer to 34 or 40—though, admittedly, I haven’t a clue what that *actually* feels like. All I really know is that I’m some type of anachronism, preferring hard copies to digital ones, Bach to Beyonce, and the Times to Twitter. I don’t know about you, but I never did feel 22 (well, perhaps I did at age 5).
Does that matter, and what does it mean? Is how old I feel more important than how old I actually am? As a geropsychologist-in-training, I don’t think these questions are particularly absurd. And I do think they matter.
This tension between one’s subjective age—that is, how old or young someone feels—and their actual, chronological age has begun to attract a good bit of attention in the gerontological literature, and has quickly become a focus of my own research.
Accumulating evidence, for example, implicates subjective age in older adults’ well being. Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have found that feeling younger is associated with better self-rated and objective heath, and is an important correlate of cognitive and physical functioning. Feeling older has even become increasingly recognized as a risk factor for premature mortality.
Why? Because this research is in its infancy (ha!), the reasons are unclear. It has been suggested that younger subjective age is associated with lower C-reactive protein, which is a marker of systemic inflammation linked to a catalogue of adverse heath outcomes in old age, including functional limitation and all-cause mortality. It is conceivable that individuals who feel younger than their actual age may have lower systemic inflammation because they have more favorable health profiles. Consistent with this logic, feeling younger has been linked to lower body mass index (BMI), fewer depressive symptoms, and more frequent participation in physical activity.
Considering the pathogenesis of osteoarthritis (OA)—another research interest of mine —these findings are important and interesting to me for several reasons. For one, elevated BMI is a widely accepted risk factor for knee pain, with inflammatory responses having been implicated in the obesity-knee OA link. And among persons with OA, activity restriction and physical inactivity are avoidance measures often adopted to reduce the pain associated with movement. Paradoxically, these strategies have been linked with obesity, increased pain, and further restriction among its sufferers.
So, to what extent might subjective age influence OA pain, and OA pain, subjective age?
Before I attempt to answer, I should note that recent experimental research demonstrates the possibility that subjective age—like pain—can vary proximally and contextually. For example, increases in subjective age have been observed after priming participants with negative age stereotypes. Emerging work also suggests that felt age fluctuations may also be sensitive to health cues: features of physical functioning—particularly pain—have been found to make age salient to people, suggesting increased physical symptoms could trigger an awareness of one’s age and aging process.
It seems previous research positions OA as an apt context in which to study subjective age because pain is a central and persistent symptom to which fluctuations in subjective age may be sensitive.
How does subjective age behave with osteoarthritis, then?
Using a single baseline interview and a unique “in the moment” 7-day experience sampling method (ESM) comprising 4 assessments daily—drawn from Dr. Patricia Parmelee’s ongoing study of everyday quality of life with OA— we examined health and affective (i.e. emotional) correlates of self-reported subjective age among 68 older adults with knee osteoarthritis.
The difference between participants’ actual and endorsed subjective age, computed globally (i.e. from baseline) and at each ESM data point, was examined as a predictor of baseline well-being and of momentary pain and affect.
Dr. Parmelee and I found that while older adults in our (admittedly small) sample typically felt younger than their actual age, there was considerable momentary variability in subjective age. At baseline, feeling older than one’s actual age was associated with more anger, higher BMI, disability, and depression and with poorer life satisfaction. At the momentary level, feeling younger was associated with greater positive affect and with lower negative affect, fatigue, and pain.
Results provide at least preliminary support to a conceptualization of the age individuals feel on a proximal basis as a marker of individuals’ physical, and perhaps mental heath. What might this mean clinically? Perhaps simply asking a person how old he feels, for example, may yield rich insights into the physical and mental state of the individual, his experience with getting older or, more specifically, with managing a disability like OA. Felt age may, so too, be an elegant proxy measure of the subjective experience of pain in clinical settings.
So, while you may not stay forever young, at least there’s evidence to suggest you can feel like you are. And, really, that seems to be more important— take it from this subjectively old soul.
Tell me– do you feel your age?