I had lunch awhile back with The Captain, an old colleague of mine who had recently entered his eighth decade in what seemed to me to be fairly robust fashion. He’s an enthusiastic cyclist, devoted volunteer, and occasional consultant fiercely determined to stay in the thick of things. “You know,” he told me, “in my mind I feel like I’m still 28 years old.”
So that’s why you’re flirting with the waitress, I thought at the time, but I had to admit later that I often shared the same perception. It’s as if my sense of self as a young adult had proven so appealing that my brain declined all upgrades during the succeeding decades. This has led to all sorts of tragicomic scenarios in my 60s: stumbling around while trying to guard 20-year-olds on the basketball court, limping through a 5K alongside my son in below-zero weather, standing too close to the stage while my friend’s garage band assaults my aging ears. I could go on, but you get the idea.
As fraught as this gap between chronological and subjective age can sometimes be, it turns out that it may have some benefits, as well. It could mean that my brain is taking its own sweet time growing old.
Researchers at Seoul National University in South Korea last week released the results of a study suggesting that older adults who reported feeling younger than their age sported more gray matter in key brain regions than their peers with less youthful feelings. “We found that people who feel younger have the structural characteristics of a younger brain,” lead study author Jeanyung Chey, PhD, said in a statement. “Importantly, this difference remains robust even when other possible factors, including personality, subjective health, depressive symptoms, or cognitive functions are accounted for.”
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, is the first to connect the brain’s aging process with subjective age, and it builds on the conclusions of a 2015 report in JAMA Internal Medicine that found lower mortality rates among the elderly who felt younger than their age.
“Although previous studies have already shown that those with older subjective age have poorer biological aging markers, our findings extend the hypothesis that older subjective aging is associated with greater progression of brain aging process and poorer brain health,” Chey writes. “Significant tissue atrophy in the gray matter and older brain age may be reflective of cerebrovascular risks and such changes may cause older adults to appraise their deteriorated functions as being a result of their aging.”
In other words, people who report feeling older than their chronological age may sense — by repeated cognitive challenges — that their brains are deteriorating, an experience that tends to reinforce their perception. “It is possible that the effect of brain aging may influence the awareness of age-related change more directly than a mere appraisal of physical health,” Chey adds.
Folks like The Captain, on the other hand, can be persuaded by their youngish feelings to live a more active life, which has the salutary effect of boosting their brain health — which sustains their belief that they’re not nearly as old as they look.
That’s a pretty effective feedback loop, if you ask me. But it doesn’t mean I’m going to get back on a basketball court — or into a mosh pit — anytime soon. Even though I may feel younger than my years, I’m hoping my brain has matured to the point where it will prevent me from making a fool of myself.