Studies suggest that feeling younger may actually help you live to be older. Now, new research points to a way to keep that youthful state of mind, at least for elderly adults: feel in control.
“On days when you felt above your average control perceptions — you felt more controlled for you — you tended to feel younger,” says Jennifer Bellingtier, a postdoctoral psychology researcher at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany, of her findings, which she presented her research at the recent annual American Psychological Association (APA) convention (and which have not been published in a scientific journal).
Bellingtier’s research involved surveying 116 adults, ages 60 to 90, and 106 adults, ages 18 to 36, every day for nine days. Each time, participants were asked how old they felt that day, and how in-control of their life and actions they felt that day.
Past research has shown that it’s common to experience fluctuations in “subjective age,” or how old you feel. That held true for the people in the study: both groups experienced changes in their subjective age from day to day. But in the older group, these fluctuations were correlated with feeling a sense of control, Bellingtier says. On days they felt more in control of their lives, people tended to feel younger. In the younger group of people, changes seemed to be tied to things like health and stress levels.
The power of feeling in-control may be two-fold, Bellingtier says. A sense of agency may boost mental health and drive down subjective age, in turn motivating people to make healthy choices. “When you feel more controlled, you feel younger, and then you feel like you can accomplish more things,” Bellingtier says. “You feel like your actions matter.” This could motivate a person to get outside and exercise or to make better nutrition choices, she says.
Both environmental and internal changes could enhance an older person’s sense of control, Bellingtier says. A nursing home, for example, could allow residents to select their own food options and mealtimes, rather than mandating a set menu and dinnertime. On a personal level, even something as simple as thinking critically about all the daily activities a person controls — from the time she gets up to the books she decides to read — could help her feel empowered and better able to accomplish things.
Feeling younger than your actual age has also been linked to a lower dementia risk and better mental health, and studies suggest that subjective age may be just as important to your health as chronological age. But feeling in control may not be the only way to feel younger. Other research presented at the APA conference found that physical activity — specifically walking — was associated with a lower subjective age among adults ages 35 to 69. Social interaction may also help elderly adults feel younger, research has shown.
The good news is that most elderly adults already tend to feel younger than they are, Bellingtier says. Among the older cohort in her new study, 91% of people reported feeling younger than their chronological age on at least one of the study days, while only 23% reported feeling older at any point during the study.