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Enriching the Human Experience

New Insights Into the Relationship Between How We Feel and Our Views On Aging

a man and a woman in their 80s laugh in a field of flowers
Photo credit: Jaddy Liu.

For Immediate Release

A new study finds that the disconnect between how old we feel and how old we want to be can offer insights into the relationship between our views on aging and our health.

Subjective age discordance (SAD) – the difference between how old you feel and how old you would like to be – is a fairly new concept in the psychology of aging. However, the work to this point has used SAD to look at longitudinal data and how people’s views on aging evolve over months or years.

“We wanted to see whether SAD could help us assess day-to-day changes in our views on aging, and how that may relate to our physical health and well-being,” says Shevaun Neupert, co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University.

SAD is determined by taking how old you feel, subtracting how old you would like to be and then dividing it by your actual age. The higher the score, the more you feel older than you want to be.

For this study, researchers enrolled 116 adults aged 60-90 and 107 adults aged 18-36. Study participants filled out an online survey every day for eight days. The survey was designed to assess how old participants felt each day, their ideal age, their positive and negative mood over the course of the day, any stresses they experienced, and any physical complaints, such as backaches or cold symptoms.

“We found that both older adults and younger adults experienced SAD,” Neupert says. “It was more pronounced in older adults, which makes sense. However, it fluctuated more from day to day in younger adults, which was interesting.”

“We think younger adults are getting pushed and pulled more,” says Jennifer Bellingtier, first author of the paper, and a researcher at Friedrich Schiller University Jena. “Younger adults are concerned about negative stereotypes associated with aging, but may also be dealing with negative stereotypes associated with younger generations and wishing they had some of the privileges and status associated with being older.”

Two additional findings stood out.

“On days when the age you feel is closer to your ideal age, people tend to have a more positive mood,” Bellingtier says. “And, on average, people who have more health complaints also had higher SAD scores.”

Neither finding was surprising, but both show the value of the SAD concept as a tool for understanding people’s views on age and aging. It may also offer a new approach for the way we think about aging and its impacts on health.

“Previous research has found that how old you feel can affect your physical and mental well-being, and interventions to address that have focused on trying to make people feel younger,” Neupert says.

“That approach is problematic, in that it effectively encourages ageism,” says Bellingtier. “Our findings in this study suggest that another approach to improving well-being would be to find ways to reduce this subjective age discordance. In other words, instead of telling people to feel young, we could help people by encouraging them to raise their ‘ideal’ age.”

The paper, “Daily Experiences of Subjective Age Discordance and Well-Being,” is published in the journal Psychology and Aging. The paper was co-authored by Fiona Rupprecht and Frieder Lang of Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

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Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Daily Experiences of Subjective Age Discordance and Well-Being”

Authors: Jennifer A. Bellingtier, Friedrich Schiller University Jena; Fiona S. Rupprecht and Frieder R. Lang, Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg; Shevaun D. Neupert, North Carolina State University

Published: July 22, Psychology and Aging

DOI: 10.1037/pag0000621

Abstract: Subjective age discordance (SAD) captures the difference between how old one feels and how old one would ideally like to be. We investigated the presence, strength, and fluctuation of this discordance in daily life as well as its relationship to various indicators of physical and psychological well-being with an 8-day diary study. Participants were 116 older and 107 younger adults who completed daily measures of felt age, ideal age, positive and negative affect, physical symptoms, and stressors. We operationalized SAD as felt age minus ideal age divided by chronological age and compared the utility of this discordance to the more established proportional discrepancy of felt age from chronological age. Daily SAD was present in both age groups, such that individuals idealized younger ages than they felt. This discordance was larger in older than younger adults, although younger adults exhibited more daily fluctuations in SAD. Within-person increases in SAD were associated with lower positive affect, whereas larger SAD at the between-person level was associated with more physical symptoms and stressors. These relationships were over and above the associations of felt and chronological age with the outcomes suggesting the utility of daily SAD for understanding daily physical and psychological well-being.

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