When it comes to longevity, feeling young may be more important than being young.
So say a pair of researchers from University of College London and the International Longevity Centre-UK. They analyzed data on nearly 6,500 English adults and found that those who felt at least one year older than their actual age were 41% more likely to die within eight years than were those who felt at least three years younger than the age listed on their birth certificates.
The finding was published Monday by JAMA Internal Medicine.
The data for the study came from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. A total of 6,489 people who were at least 52 years old joined the study in 2004 or 2005 and were then tracked for an average of 99 months.
When they enrolled in the study, volunteers were asked this simple question: "How old do you feel you are?" Although the average actual age of the volunteers was 65.8 years old, their average self-perceived age was significantly lower – only 56.8 years old.
The feeling that one's true age is lower than one's chronological age was widespread in the study sample. Fully 69.6% of the volunteers felt at least three years younger, while only 4.8% felt more than one year older. The remaining 25.6% felt "about their actual age," the researchers wrote.
A total of 1,266 of the volunteers died during the course of the study, but those deaths weren't evenly distributed among all three groups. The mortality rate among those who felt older than their true age was 24.6%, compared with 18.5% for those who felt their age and only 14.3% for those who felt much younger.
It's possible that some of this difference could be explained by people who were already quite ill when they joined the study and thus felt older than their actual age. So the researchers excluded all the people who died within one year of enrolling and ran the numbers again. The results held up.
The researchers also adjusted the data to take into account various factors that might account for the link between feeling older and the heightened risk of near-term death. The pair used statistical methods to control for health problems like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and depression. They controlled for behavioral factors like smoking, drinking and spending time engaged in social activities. And they factored in demographic variables like gender, ethnicity, education and wealth.
With all of these things taken into consideration, they still found that the risk of death during the course of the study was 41% higher for the people who felt older than for the people who felt younger. (The mortality rate was slightly higher for those who felt close to their actual age, but the difference wasn't big enough to be statistically significant.)
When the study authors analyzed cancer deaths separately, they found no real link between perceived age and the risk of death. But when they focused on deaths due to cardiovascular disease, they found that people who felt older than their true age were 55% more likely to die during the study than people who felt younger.
The results could help doctors identify patients who are most in need of their help, the study authors wrote: "Individuals who feel older than their actual age could be targeted with health messages promoting positive health behaviors and attitudes toward aging."