Subjective age: What makes a person feel younger?

While some claim that you’re as young as you feel, others criticize those who don’t act their age. Psychologists share their take on the subject

Colombian singer Maluma performs on stage along with pop icon Madonna during his concert "Medallo in the Map", in Medellin, Colombia, on April 30, 2022.
Colombian singer Maluma performs on stage along with pop icon Madonna during his concert "Medallo in the Map", in Medellin, Colombia, on April 30, 2022.FREDY BUILES (Getty)
Enrique Alpañés

Ana is 66 chronological years old — and 40 subjective. She first became aware of this dissociation a couple of years ago, when she went to get her Covid-19 vaccine. Standing in line, surrounded by her peers, she pondered: “Who are these people? Could they really be my age? Do I look that old?” When she returned home, she discussed it with her friends, only half-jokingly. Many — most of them, really — had gone through the same thing.

According to a 2006 study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, people over 40 perceive themselves, on average, to be 20% younger than what their ID claims. This disparity begins to take shape at the age of 25, once the academic journey has ended and the direct and constant reference that classmates provide is lost. By the time they reach 30, approximately 70% of the population feels younger than they really are. And the gap widens over time. As the authors of a University of Virginia study state, “subjective aging appears to occur on Mars, where one Earth decade equals only 5.3 Martian years.”

It is not a mathematical matter, nor does it happen to everyone, but there comes a time in life when the number on the cake begins to lose meaning to the person doing the blowing the candles. Psychologists and scientists have been studying this phenomenon since the 1970s. Some try to find the cultural factors that make us feel younger. A study carried out in 1989 by the American Psychological Association described it as “a form of defensive denial by which [people] can dissociate themselves from the stigma attached to growing old.”

Belén Alfonso (34 chronological years old, 30 subjective), a psychologist specializing in gender studies, agrees with this conclusion. “It is a phenomenon influenced by the social stereotypes that we internalize about old age and an internal mechanism of resistance to seeing ourselves as an older person, due to all the negative interpretations that are associated with it.” Alfonso pointed out that these ageist stigmas target women more through all kinds of anti-aging advertising in which concepts such as being active, attractive or valid are associated with youth. “In contrast, we have a stereotype of old age associated with unproductiveness, illness, dependency, the death of sexual life and more,” she added. The fact that no one wants anything to do with that is only logical.

Alfonso does not believe that a mature person should be blamed for perceiving or presenting themselves to the world using the codes of younger generations, but says that the social context that pushes them to do so should be analyzed. “Having a subjective age of 20 at 65 means that maybe we perceive ourselves as energetic, strong, attractive and active; but why can’t we associate those qualities with being 65?” she asked.

Ageism and misogyny

This has been Madonna’s case in recent years. The singer, 64 chronological years old, has been criticized for the way she presents herself on social media: as a woman that is comfortable with herself and her sexuality. Madonna twerks around young people who could be her children (sometimes they are), smokes joints, shows her vibrators and joins viral TikTok trends. Analyzing the social media comments, it is clear that many people see this as a big problem. They understand that when women reach 60, they should cover themselves up and try not to attract attention.

However, Madonna debunks this idea one post at a time. Recently, after haters criticized her physical appearance, she wrote: “Once again I fell into the clutches of ageism and misogyny that permeates the world we live in. A world that refuses to celebrate women over the age of 45 and feels the need to punish them if they are hard-working, strong-willed and adventurous. I’ve never apologized for any of the creative choices I’ve made or the way I look or dress, and I’m not going to start now.”

For Belén Alfonso, Madonna “teaches us that physical activity, eroticism and trending on social media are not exclusive behaviors of a certain age.” However, a social context must be taken into account in this case. The problem is not that Madonna does whatever she wants; the problem is a music industry in which a pop diva is only conceivable as a young woman. An industry that drives mature women to cosmetic surgeries and Photoshop so they can fit in a monolithic canon.

But no canon could restrain the British dancer Paddy Jones. She belongs on the dance floor. And in the Guinness Book of Records, which she entered as the oldest acrobatic salsa dancer in the world. Her story went viral after her appearance on the Spanish talent show Tú sí que vales in 2009; her body befitted an 80-year-old woman, but she danced salsa with such agility and dexterity that many 40-year-olds can only dream of. Her videos, which accumulate millions of views, are hypnotic, tender and slightly terrifying.

Today, Jones is 88 chronological years old. “But I don’t feel that old, I think I’m about 30,” she explained via email with the help of her daughter. Jones spent the past decade experiencing a second youth. Her fame came when she was already retired; she danced on TV sets in the UK, Germany, Argentina and Italy, and gave interviews where she encouraged other ladies to do away with the cane and chase their dreams with no regard for ageist stereotypes. She made the most out of every year. And then her body and her mind reached their limit. Subjective age can help improve quality of life, but in the end, the real age prevails. “I don’t do much now, but I still try to do my word puzzles and watch TV,” she wrote. “I don’t see many people. My daughter says that the old friends have passed away. So I see mostly family. I don’t recognize people anymore. The Alzheimer’s makes me forget.”

The positive effects

Chronological age cannot be changed, “but lifestyles, behaviors and individual conditions can influence the biological [based on the body’s condition and health] and subjective ages,” said Bruno Arpino, a sociologist from the University of Florence. Arpino is 43 chronological years old and prefers not to say how many subjective. “My answer would be biased, because I study the subject,” he explained. He studied it as coordinator of Care, Retirement & Wellbeing of Older People Across Different Welfare Regimes (CREW), a project by different European universities, focused on the quality of life of older people.

The sociologist assured that seeing oneself as having a lower subjective age than the actual one can have positive effects. “People who do it tend to have better health, to be happier with their lives and even to live longer,” he pointed out. However, these observations should be taken with a grain of salt, as it is not known to what extent they are a cause or a consequence. “This phenomenon occurs especially among people who are active for their age,” he added. Other factors can help a person feel a few years younger, such as being sociable, cultivating hobbies or having intergenerational relationships.

The studies, the theories, they all seem to boil down to one rather simple idea: finding your place as you enter adulthood is hard. The 40-year-old who acts like a cool young dude raises as many eyebrows as the person who declares that music went downhill, as luck would have it, right after they stopped partying. In our heads, we aged better than all our classmates. And it is understandable, it is healthy, but it is not real. Nonetheless, while it may be disappointing to confirm that you do, indeed, look your age, at the end of the day, feeling younger can be good for your physical and mental health. Being combative like Madonna, agile like Paddy. Forever young, until the end.

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