Feeling Empowered in Late Life Could Make You Feel Younger

August 10, 2010

People may feel younger if they feel empowered to make changes that will impact their lives, according to a new Penn State study. The study looked at “subjective age”—how old a person feels in comparison to their chronological age, which plays an important role in health and well-being.

“Recent research has shown that subjective age is related to mortality and longevity—individuals who feel younger than their chronological age are more likely to live longer and die later than those who feel as old or older than their chronological age,” says Frank Infurna, doctoral candidate in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

In conducting the study, Infurna and his colleagues sought to better understand what factors can lead to people feeling older than their chronological age. Other research has examined this phenomenon in middle age and older adults, but Infurna’s research is one of the first to look at adults age 80 and older.

The researchers looked at data from the OCTO study, a sample of people age 84 and older living in Jönköping, Sweden. After statistical analysis of 267 participants, Infurna found that mastery beliefs—“beliefs that your actions can influence outcomes in your life,” he explains—were strongly associated with feeling a younger subjective age.

Infurna’s research also showed that, despite their chronological age, most participants (64 percent) reported not feeling old. This has been shown in other studies, too, in countries such as Finland, Germany, and the United States. Infurna believes this is an indication that, throughout their lives, people have the capacity to feel younger, and old age is no exception.

“Mastery beliefs may allow individuals to adjust to and downgrade the impact of possible age-related losses in cognitive, physical, or social domains,” write the authors in their findings, which appear in Psychology and Aging.

By researching different factors that can lead to undesirable outcomes such as early death, researchers are improving the chances that people can continue to develop healthily in old age.

Infurna notes that the effect size of feeling younger may differ across nations, and future work in different geographic regions is needed.

Co-authors on Infurna’s paper include his adviser, Dr. Denis Gerstorf, assistant professor of human development and family studies, Penn State; Dr. Suzanne Robertson (Human Development and Family Studies graduate student, Penn State, at the time of the research); Dr. Steven Zarit, head of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Penn State; and Dr. Stig Berg, Jönköping University.

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Editors: Frank Infurna can be reached at fji102@psu.edu. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.