Why Our Minds Never Catch Up With Our Bodies

That strange sense of feeling younger than you are is very common

Image: Pixaby

When I look in the mirror, I see someone way older than my brain expects. My mind is stuck at around age 30, shaving a whopping 28 years off reality. It’s a strange sensation that leaves me feeling like the kid in a room of adults who are all around my age, or has me referring to a stranger in his fifties “some old guy.” Turns out I’m not alone, and science actually has a term for this very common internal time warp.

After about age 25, most people think of themselves as younger than their chronological age. And the gap in “subjective age,” as it’s called, widens with time.

Most people feel about 20% younger than their actual age, according to a Michigan State University survey of 502,548 people ages 10 to 89. At around age 50, the typical person will feel 40 on the inside. This skewed view of our aging selves influences how we think about growing older, too, and also how our perception of “old” changes as we become what we used to imagine. Young adults are apt to see 50 as old, the survey found, but people in their fifties are like, nuh uh!

“What you consider to be old changes as you become old yourself,” said study leader William Chopik, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

What’s going on inside our heads?

This wrinkle in the perception of time might be driven by how fast your brain ages compared to your body. In one study, scientists surveyed people ages 59 to 84 about their health and how old they feel, then scanned their brains for signs of aging. Those who put their subjective age lower than their real age scored better on memory tests, were less likely to report signs of depression, and had more gray matter in key spots.

“People who feel younger have the structural characteristics of a younger brain,” said study leader Jeanyung Chey of Seoul National University in Korea.

Not everyone feels younger than they are, though. People who feel older might be sensing that their brains are aging, Chey and her colleagues speculate in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. If that’s true, a logical antidote would be to focus on lifestyle changes that support a healthy mind, like improved diet and physical activity.

Your self-perceived age may be at least somewhat linked to how long you’ll live. In one study, people who felt younger than their actual age were less likely to die during an eight-year follow-up period than people who felt their age or older. The study found only a link, however, not cause-and-effect.

Feeling younger than reality isn’t reserved just for those who are in great physical health, however. Older people saddled with multiple illnesses, even those suffering chronic pain, tend to put their subjective age many years younger than time would tell.

Lisa Carver, PhD, an assistant professor at Queen’s University in Ontario, interviewed 66 people in the U.S. and Canada ages 65 to 90. “More than half of the participants, despite the presence of illness, felt at least 20 years younger than their age,” Carver writes. “Some said they felt as young as 17.”

Are there consequences?

Subjective age is also influenced by a new reality of aging: People live longer these days compared to generations past, and thanks to artificial hips, organ transplants, and modern therapies, many of them are healthier and live more active lives, too. In several countries, people don’t feel they’re experiencing the health problems of a typical 65-year-old until they’re 76.

There seems to be no harm in kidding ourselves with this perception of a younger age inside. But there could be consequences, Carver speculates — and I’ll let you decide if they’re positive or negative:

If people feel younger than they are, they might be less inclined to save for retirement; they may have a surprising desire to continue working past retirement age; and to the consternation of their grown kids, older parents (or grandparents) might wish to hop on a motorcycle or choose not to heed a doctor’s advice that they perceive as being for — you guessed it — old people.

All this gives me a better understanding of why I recently took up mountain biking again — an activity I really enjoyed when I was younger. It might also explain why all the hills seem to have gotten mysteriously steeper, and why I stupidly went over the handlebars on a steep drop the other day and bruised multiple extremities. I’m not 30 anymore. I just feel like it.

Independent health and science journalist, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience, writing about how we age and how to optimize your mind and body through time.