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Updated 2:15 PM December 9, 2008
 

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  Research
Optimal illusion: Most seniors feel younger

Older people tend to feel about 13 years younger than their chronological age, a study finds.

In the Berlin Aging Study researchers analyzed the responses of 516 men and women age 70 and older, tracking how their perceptions about age and their satisfaction with aging changed during a six-year period.

"People generally felt quite a bit younger than they actually were, and they also showed relatively high levels of satisfaction with aging over the time period studied," says Jacqui Smith, a psychologist at the Institute for Social Research. Smith conducted the study with colleagues Anna Kleinspehn-Ammerlahn and Dana Kotter-Gruehn at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

"We examined individual changes over time, and expected the gap to increase. But we were surprised to find that it was maintained, on average. Perhaps feeling about 13 years younger is an optimal illusion in old age," Smith says.

Smith and colleagues found that some of the oldest participants did feel even younger over time. But poor health reduced the gap between felt age and actual age.

The researchers also assessed how old people thought they looked, asking them: "How old do you feel when you look at yourself in a mirror?" They responded by selecting an age on a scale that ranged from 0-120 years. In general, at the start of the study people said they looked about 10 years younger than they were. By the end of the study, this gap had narrowed; people felt they looked only about seven years younger than their chronological age.

In general, women perceived their appearance as being closer to their actual age, Smith says. "Women saw themselves as about four years older than their male peers," she says. "There are several likely reasons for this gender gap in subjective physical age. One is that women may be more aware of their appearance than men, especially given the negative stereotypes of older bodies."

In assessing satisfaction with aging, researchers initially found men were more satisfied than women with their own aging. But over the six-year period, men's satisfaction decreased more than women's. Poor health magnified these patterns, Smith says.

According to Smith, examining changes in how people feel about the aging process in old age can provide important indicators about the resilience and vitality of the older self.

"Feeling positive about getting older may well be associated with remaining active and experiencing better health in old age," she says. "Thus, studies on self-perceptions of aging can contribute to our understanding of potential indicators of resilience in older adults and the aging self."

Results of the study will appear in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Science.

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