An optimistic, young-at-heart attitude makes you healthier

Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you
If you’re young at heart
For it’s hard, you will find, to be narrow of mind
If you’re young at heart

So sang Frank Sinatra, but was he right? Or, more accurately, was Carolyn Leigh – who actually wrote the lyrics – right?

Well, making fairy tales come true might be a bit of a stretch, but quite a bit of research has been done on the long-term prognoses for those who say they feel ‘young at heart’. And the news is positive.

Read: How to embrace ageing positively

The term ‘subjective age’ is one that has gained popularity in recent years, but as far back as the late 1990s, Laura Carstensen, a gerontologist at Stanford University in California, was measuring how our psychology changes as we age.

Professor Carstensen and her co-authors argue that time perception is integral to human motivation, and that our motivations change over time – from being motivated to pursue knowledge, explore and make new connections when we are young to concentrating on finding meaning and emotional intimacy in our older years.

Read: Podcast: Pets and positive ageing

More recent research suggests that subjective age isn’t just a feeling, but also a fairly accurate predictor of health.

“People who feel younger live longer. Those who feel older have a shorter lifespan,” says Florida State University’s Antonio Terracciano, co-author of a 2018 study that found robust evidence for an association between an older subjective age and a higher risk of mortality across adulthood.

In the same year, South Korean researchers scanned the brains of 68 healthy older adults and found that those who felt younger than their age had thicker brain matter and had endured less age-related deterioration. That group also performed better on memory tasks and had a lower risk of cognitive decline.

Further studies since then have served to strengthen the case for subjective age as a health indicator. The newest of those, Feeling Younger, Rehabilitating Better, published by a group of Israeli researchers in June, suggests that ‘mind over matter’, in this case subjective age, is associated with clinical health outcomes.

“There is evidence”, the study says, “that optimism is a powerful predictor of physical functioning, health and even mortality”.

Employing what is known as a Functional Independence Measure (FIM) test, the researchers surveyed 194 older adults who had been hospitalised following an osteoporotic fracture or stroke. These participants completed measures of subjective age and wellbeing (i.e., optimism, self-esteem and life satisfaction) several times during rehabilitation.

Read: How singing promotes healthy ageing

They found that younger subjective age at admission predicted higher FIM scores at discharge. Those who felt younger than their chronological age at admission to the rehabilitation facility were likely to be more optimistic during rehabilitation and subsequently had better functioning at discharge.

In short, their ‘young at heart’ attitude likely played a role in them healing faster than those whose subjective age was not younger than their actual age.

There’s no guarantee of fairy tales coming true if you adopt an optimistic ‘young at heart’ attitude, but there is certainly evidence that it will help you stay healthier, and recover more quickly than those who don’t.

It seems that Carolyn Leigh’s words, as sung by a young-at-heart Frank Sinatra, are well worth taking on board.

Do you feel younger than your real age? Do you think that helps your health? Why not share your experience and thoughts in the comments section below?

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Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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