How old do you feel?
A person’s ‘subjective age’ may be different to their chronological age. But what does it mean to feel older or younger than you really are?
Lots of gerontology research asks what it means to be older and how we can enable people to age ‘successfully’. Subjective age is said to be a better predictor of health and wellbeing than actual, chronological age
“How old are you, and how old do you feel?” asked the facilitator at a workshop I attended recently.
“I’m 52, but I don’t feel a day over 25.”; “Some days I feel like I’m 30 and others, 95.”; “Oh God, I feel like I’m about 102!” came the varied responses.
A more academic expression for this is “subjective age”, the age you feel in yourself as opposed to your chronological or biological age.
We are, of course, all obsessed with our subjective ages, but it is also a common theme in the gerontology literature as academics seek to explore what it means to be older and how to age successfully, actively and healthily. Subjective age is said to be a better predictor of health and wellbeing than actual, chronological age:
- One recent paper reports that “less severe depression, having better perceived health, having no visual impairment, having higher handgrip strength, and living in a metropolitan area were associated with younger subjective age”.
- Another, published last year by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, concludes that “workers who actively manage their subjective age perceptions could age successfully at work”.
- And an analysis of data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, “Following adjustment for demographic, social, cognitive, lifestyle, and health factors, we found that having an older subjective age independently predicted increased [functional] limitations…..and greater depressive symptoms”.
Asking people what age they feel simply reflects back our sociocultural context.
We are always the same age inside
But what does it mean to feel older or younger than you really are?
If you’re in your 50s or 60s and you’re busy and dynamic, then you may respond that you feel 30. Or, if you’re in your 40s, you might respond that you feel 20 on the nights when you’re dancing on tables and 80 when you’re utterly knackered the following morning. Interestingly, the difference between actual and perceived age tends to be no more than 20 years, so there’s only so far that people can go with the illusion.
Of course, how old we feel is informed by how ageing is seen in society. The Centre for Ageing Better and Ipsos MORI recently published ‘The Perennials’, a report looking at global attitudes to ageing which showed that as life expectancy increases and populations around the world grow older, many societies see ageing through a ‘narrative of decline’ – not recognising later life as a time of opportunity and change.
So, asking people what age they feel simply reflects back our sociocultural context. Intrinsic to the concept are ageist notions of what different ages look like. And academics and scholars seeking to understand the experience of ageing and promote “active ageing” are perhaps unwittingly relying on and promoting fundamentally ageist attitudes.
I posed the question to the woman I was partnered with at the workshop. “I’m 64”, she replied, “and I feel 64.” Exactly! I thought.
Gertrude Stein said “we are always the same age inside”. We are also always our own age inside.