Feeling young can lessen damage from stress, study suggests

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'Age-Positivity' Could Be the Key to a Long Life

Getting older can stress out a lot of people for myriad reasons: You’re body aches; your finances diminish; your memory fades. This stress can affect your body and health.

A new study out of the German Centre of Gerontology suggests people who feel young, however, suffer fewer bad effects of stress, with a greater sense of well-being, better cognitive function, less inflammation, lower risk of hospitalization and even a longer life than their older-feeling peers.

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Researchers analyzed three years of data from 5,039 participants in the German Ageing Survey, a longitudinal survey of residents of Germany ages 40 and older.

The German survey asked about participants’ perceived stress and their functional health — how much they were limited in daily activities such as walking, dressing and bathing. Participants also indicated their subjective age by answering the question, “How old do you feel?”

“Feeling younger than one’s chronological age is associated with various beneficial health outcomes,” the researchers wrote in their study, published recently in the journal Psychology and Aging. “However, apart from these direct health effects, little is known about the role of subjective age as a potential ‘buffer’ and compensatory resource that might counteract the detrimental effect of health risk factors.”

The researchers found, on average, participants who reported more stress experienced a steeper decline in functional health over the three years.

However, subjective age seemed to provide a protective buffer. The link between stress and a decline in functional health was weaker among people who felt younger than their actual age. That protective effect was strongest among the oldest participants.

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“Generally, we know that functional health declines with advancing age, but we also know that these age-related functional health trajectories are remarkably varied. As a result, some individuals enter old age and very old age with quite good and intact health resources, whereas others experience a pronounced decline in functional health, which might even result in need for long-term care,” said study lead author Markus Wettstein, who is now at University of Heidelberg. “Our findings support the role of stress as a risk factor for functional health decline, particularly among older individuals, as well as the health-supporting and stress-buffering role of a younger subjective age.”

The researchers say the results suggest that helping people feel younger could reduce the harm caused by stress and improve health among older adults. More research is needed to help determine what kind of interventions would work best, however.

For example, Wettstein said, messaging campaigns to counteract ageism and negative age stereotypes and to promote positive views on aging could help people feel younger. Also, stress management training could prevent functional health loss among older adults, he added.

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