Feeling younger isn’t just psychological – it has health benefits

cheerful elderly man listening to music in headphones

The researchers found that those who feel younger may keep their health and function for longer periods of time, and, as the present research reveals, can recover from disability more quickly. As a result, by believing they will age effectively, individuals could maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com.

Even in old age, feeling youthful may reduce the likelihood of physical impairment and illness.

By BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY

The phrase “you’re only as old as you feel” is becoming more accurate as research shows that those who feel younger than their actual age tend to be healthier and more mentally resilient.

Could the saying apply to elderly folks who are recovering from physical disabilities? Apparently so. Israeli researchers from Bar-Ilan University have shown that, even in old age, having a youthful mindset might improve one’s chances of successfully recovering from medical conditions. Their research was recently published in the journal Gerontology.

The research followed 194 adult patients, aged 73 to 84, who were being treated for osteoporotic fractures or strokes at various rehab centers around Israel. The two health conditions that older individuals dread the most are fractures (usually brought on by falls) and stroke. This is because both of these conditions often cause the loss of one’s functional independence.

Multiple interviews with patients were conducted during their recuperation. They were questioned about their emotions, experiences, and perceived age (how young they felt). The nursing staff used the Functional Independence Measurement (FIM) exam to evaluate the patients’ functional independence at both admission and discharge.

At release, about a month after being admitted to the hospital, patients who felt younger (had a younger subjective age) had greater functional independence. Feeling younger has been shown to have positive effects on individuals recovering from osteoporotic fractures and stroke. The researchers also discovered that those who felt younger recovered more quickly because they had more hope for recovering their functioning skills.

“The effect of subjective age at admission on functional independence at discharge was confirmed,” says Prof. Amit Shrira, from the Gerontology Program at the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, who led the study together with Prof. Ehud Bodner, also from the Interdisciplinary Social Sciences department. “However, the reverse effect — that of functional independence at admission on subjective age at discharge — was not confirmed. This supports the conclusion that a younger age identity is an important psychological construct that contributes to a more successful rehabilitation,” added Shrira, who conducted the research with Dr. Daphna Magda Kalir from the Gender Studies Program, among others.

Surprisingly, subjective age was the strongest predictor of rehabilitation outcomes, stronger even than patients’ chronological age and multiple chronic health conditions occurring simultaneously (physical multimorbidity) at admission. Chronological age and physical multimorbidity are generally considered by health care practitioners in determining prognosis, whereas subjective age is unknown to most practitioners. “Those who feel younger can maintain their health and functioning for longer periods, and as the current study shows, can recuperate better from disability. Therefore, by perceiving themselves to age successfully people may preserve a healthy and vigorous lifestyle,” says Shrira.

In view of the findings, the researchers suggest that clinicians consider evaluating patients’ subjective age when they design rehabilitation protocols. A younger subjective age may motivate older individuals to adhere to the rehabilitation protocol following osteoporotic fracture and stroke. Future research could assist in designing interventions geared to induce a younger subjective age in patients that might assist them in rehabilitating more successfully. Such interventions may help correct false beliefs about aging and include cognitive techniques that help change negative automatic thoughts about aging.

Reference: “Feeling Younger, Rehabilitating Better: Reciprocal and Mediating Effects between Subjective Age and Functional Independence in Osteoporotic Fracture and Stroke Patients” by Kalir D.M., Shrira A., Palgi Y., Batz C., Ben-Eliezer A., Heyman N., Lieberman D., Seleznev I., Shugaev I., Zaslavsky O., Zikrin E. and Bodner E., 25 May 2022, Gerontology.
DOI: 10.1159/000524885