When I graduated from college in May, I was in shock. I told my parents I wasn't ready to face the supposed "real world" — that I didn't yet feel like an adult. To this, my father laughed and said, "I've woken up many a morning and thought to myself, 'How am I almost 60? I've been practicing medicine for almost 30 years, and I still feel like a little kid."
This idea certainly comforted me at the time, and now it looks like I can return the favor. According to a new study published in JAMA, those who believe they're younger than they are may live longer.
The University College London researchers examined data from 6,489 people with an average age of 65.8 years but reported feeling almost 10 years younger. Most people in the study didn't feel like their actual age; most felt about three years younger, and only 4.8% actually felt older than their real age.
When the researchers followed up on these people over the next eight years, they found that only a little over 14% of those who felt younger than their years had passed away. In contrast, about 18% of the people who felt their age had died, and more than 24% of the people who reported feeling older had died.
So people who felt older had a 41% greater risk of death than those who felt younger, even after researchers controlled for things that might make a person feel older than they are, such as chronic or mental health problems, senior study author Andrew Steptoe told HealthDay.
But the study did not prove definitively that feeling younger lengthened a person's life because the authors don't yet understand all the mechanisms involved in the relationship between self-perceived age and life span.
"Possibilities include a broader set of health behaviors than we measured (such as maintaining a healthy weight and adherence to medical advice), and greater resilience, sense of mastery and will to live among those who feel younger than their age," the study concludes. "Self-perceived age has the potential to change, so interventions may be possible. Individuals who feel older than their actual age could be targeted with health messages promoting positive health behaviors and attitudes toward aging."
For me, the takeaway is that optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe we're healthy because we eat foods that make us feel good and stay active, then we're likelier to remain healthy. At times, my dad sure seems like an energetic little toddler — cheeks flushed and everything — so I'm just hoping I feel as good as he does at 60.
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