It's not uncommon for Paula Lester's jaw to drop when she spots a patient's age on the chart. The New York-based geriatrician treats plenty of people in their 90s who could easily pass for 70. She also has patients in their 70s who say they feel decades older.
When it comes to age, Lester says, “It really is just a number. It's about how you feel.”
The notion of how old you feel versus how old you really are has been attracting more attention from researchers and medical professionals. Recent studies have linked subjective age — the age that you feel — to a range of health outcomes, including depression, dementia and longevity. The findings: The younger you feel, the better off you may be.
Adults who feel younger report fewer chronic conditions than those who feel older. They also take fewer medications, visit the doctor less often and are more likely to maintain a normal weight, according to data collected from a large national study on health and well-being led by the University of Wisconsin.
Biology may be at play when it comes to the association between feeling younger and living longer. Researchers recently identified more favorable biomarkers associated with liver and kidney function in adults 55 and older who reported feeling younger than their chronological age, compared to those who felt their age or older. This finding could help explain the lower prevalence of age-related disease among more youthful-minded adults, says pathologist Bharat Thyagarajan, the study's lead author and an associate professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Minnesota.
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Find what makes you feel young
Asking patients how old they feel isn't common medical practice yet. But Thyagarajan said it is a “fairly easy” thing to include during a routine doctor's visit, and doing so could help identify patients at higher risk for age-related diseases so they can be screened more intensively.
One problem with posing the question, however, is that most physicians aren't equipped to “help guide people to feel the best they can,” says Lester, who practices at NYU Winthrop Hospital and is a clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health.
It's not as easy as telling patients who identify with an older subjective age to “think young,” Lester says, especially if that patient is dealing with a debilitating condition. Instead, she encourages adults who feel their age or older to “think about what's important to them” and to do what makes them feel young.
"Some people might feel younger if they go for a walk outside, or, if they can't walk, if someone takes them in a wheelchair outside,” Lester says. “Someone might feel younger if they play a card game or an activity that they did when they were younger.… It's a matter of finding what they enjoy, and if they have to adapt it, figure out a way to adapt it.”
Lester also advises her patients, who range from 65 to 105, to prioritize their days, recognizing that long to-do lists may be harder to tackle, and that setting unattainable goals can lead to discouragement.
"You start every day with a bucket of energy, and you have to decide how you want to use that bucket,” Lester says. “Do you want to use it washing the floor and vacuuming? Or do you want to use it talking to a friend or going to play bingo or going to the movies — whatever it is.”
And be sure to take assistance where you need it. A walker might make your morning stroll goals a reality; a hearing aid could improve quality time with friends and family — both of which could help you feel younger. When patients resist these devices, Lester reminds them: “It's better to use a little bit of help to be able to do things and enjoy things. And sometimes you need a little bit of help to avoid a lot of help.”