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Yes, we've heard it endlessly for years — wrinkles make you look old, and a fresh, rosy glow makes you look young. But honestly, a few smile lines mean a life well-lived, right?


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Imagine, for a moment, that you had no birth certificate and your age was simply based on the way you feel inside. How old would you say you are? Like your height or shoe size, the of years that have passed since you first entered the world is an unchangeable fact.

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Scientists are increasingly interested in this quality. Various studies have even shown that your subjective age also can predict various important health outcomesincluding your risk of death. Given these enticingmany researchers are now trying to unpick the many biological, psychological, and social factors that shape the individual experience of ageing — and how this knowledge might help us live longer, healthier lives.

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This new understanding of the ageing process has been decades in the making. Some of the earliest studies charting the gap between felt and chronological age appeared in the s and s. That trickle of initial interest has now turned into a flood. A torrent of new studies during the last 10 years have explored the potential psychological and physiological consequences of this discrepancy.

One of the most intriguing strands of this research has explored the way subjective age interacts with our personality.

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It is now well accepted that people tend to mellow as they get older, becoming less extroverted and less open to new experiences — personality changes which are less pronounced in people who are younger at heart and accentuated in people with older subjective ages. Interestingly, however, the people with younger subjective ages also became more conscientious and less neurotic — positive changes that come with normal ageing.

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So they still seem to gain the wisdom that comes with greater life experience. Feeling younger than your years also seems to come with a lower risk of depression and greater mental wellbeing as we age. It also means better physical health, including your risk of dementia, and less of a chance that you will be hospitalised for illness.

Yannick Stephan at the University of Montpellier examined the data from three longitudinal studies which together tracked more than 17, middle-aged and elderly participants. Most people felt about eight years younger than their actual chronological age. But some felt they had aged — and the consequences were serious.

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There are many reasons why subjective age tells us so much about our health. It may be a direct result of those accompanying personality changes, with a lower subjective age meaning that you enjoy a greater range of activities such as travelling or learning a new hobby as you age.

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But the mechanism linking physical and mental wellbeing to subjective age almost certainly acts in both directions. If you feel depressed, forgetful, and physically vulnerable, you are likely to feel older.

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The result could be a vicious cycle, with psychological and physiological factors both contributing to a higher subjective age and worse health, which makes us feel even older and more vulnerable. These large effect sizes demand close attention. Put another way: your subjective age can better predict your health than the date on your birth certificate. With this in mind, many scientists are trying to identify the social and psychological factors that may shape this complex process. When do we start to feel that our minds and bodies are operating on different timescales?

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And why does it happen? Working with Nicole Lindner also at the University of VirginiaNosek has investigated the ways the discrepancy between subjective and chronological age evolves across the lifetime. As you might expect, most children and adolescents feel older than they really are.

But this switches at around 25, when the felt age drops behind the chronological age. And this discrepancy only grows over time. Some psychologists have speculated that a lower subjective age is a form of self-defence, protecting us from the negative age stereotypes — as seen in a nuanced study by Anna Kornadt at Bielefeld University in Germany.

You may feel differently when you think about yourself at work compared with when you think about your social relationships, for example.

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And so Kornadt asked participants to say whether they felt younger or older than they really were in different areas of life. Kornadt also found that people with a lower subjective age tended to imagine their future self in a more positive light.

In one of the few existing studies, elderly participants in a fitness regime enjoyed greater strength gains if the experimenters praised their performance relative to other people of their age. And given its predictive power — beyond our actual chronological age — Stephan believes that doctors should be asking all their patients about their subjective age to identify the people who are most at risk of future health problems to plan their existing health care more effectively.

In the meantime, these findings can give us all a more nuanced view of the way our own brains and bodies weather the passing of time. David Robson is a science writer based in London, UK. The age you feel means more than your actual birthdate.

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Share using. By David Robson 19th July Most people feel younger or older than they really are — and this 'subjective age' has a big effect on their physical and mental health.

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Having a lower subjective age doesn't leave us frozen in a state of permanent immaturity. For most people, subjective ageing appears to occur on Mars, where one Earth decade equals only 5.

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No matter how young or old you are, we can agree that we all want to look and feel our best.