By Janet B. Kurland, LCSW-C
If I asked you how old you are, how old would you tell me you are? What would your answer be based on? Most of us would answer with our chronological age. But many of us would add a different answer, as this woman did: “I’m 79, but I feel like I’m 37.” This second age is based on feeling, on how we feel “inside.”
How old we feel has been called our “subjective age.” A recent study at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research yielded a striking finding: there is a 13-year gap between how older adults feel and how old they really are! Psychologist Jacqui Smith, co-author of the study, says, “When people reach age 25, and certainly by age 30, they start to feel younger…. The gap between our subjective and real ages only gets larger as the years go by.”*
We all know the number of years since our birth. We carry all the years of our lives inside of us. There is a theory called the “ageless self,” respecting all those years. It recognizes our ability and our efforts to continue to learn, create, and grow.
Yes, there are days when we do feel our chronological years, especially as we get older and our body ages. But, hopefully, most days we feel O.K. and go about our functioning, experiencing and growing. We can do it. We can get in touch with our feelings and feel inside like we felt during the most productive years of our lives. We can keep learning. This emotional depth can help us sustain a more positive attitude, which can not only add quality but also years to our lives.
Lifestyle and attitude have been found to be significantly more important than genetics in determining whether our later years are healthy, even if one has a predisposition for Alzheimer’s, arthritis, or cancer.** A Yale University study by the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health in 2002 found that older people with more positive perceptions of aging live 7.5 years longer than those who view aging less positively. Why is this? Feeling that we have had and continue to have a meaningful life brings with it a sense of ongoing newness and creativity. Positive self-esteem and feeling productive open the way to lifelong learning experiences for ourselves – and at the same time, we serve as wonderful models for our children and grandchildren.
We’ve long known that exercising, eating a healthy diet, and not smoking can extend life expectancy. Now we know that a positive attitude is just as significant, if not more so, in contributing to a longer, more fulfilling life.
It’s worth considering.
By Janet B. Kurland, LCSW-C, Senior Care Specialist, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
*Spirit Magazine, Southwest Airlines
**1998 MacArthur Foundation study in the USA