The research I’m reviewing today looked to see if people’s perceptions of their age affected how they aged and if those perceptions changed over time, thereby continuing to affect how they aged.
What Was the Experiment Name?
Self-Perceptions of Aging: Do Subjective Age and Satisfaction With Aging Change During Old Age?
Who Conducted the Study?
What Was the Purpose?
Before I go into any details of the study, it is important to understand different aging terms. Here are a few below:
- Biological Age: the age of a person’s biological systems
- Chronological age: the actual number of years a person has lived
- Felt Age: how old one feels, acts or behaves – also called Psychological Age
- Functional Age: combination of other aging definitions to determine a true age
- Look Age: a person’s self-appraisal of biological aging – also called Physical Age
- Mental Age: the level a person performs intellectually using their ability to learn and remember things
- Physical Age: a person’s self-appraisal of biological aging – also called Look Age
- Psychological Age: how old one feels, acts or behaves, also called Felt Age
- Social Age: following society’s rules for when events would normally occur in a person’s lifetime
- Subjective Age: the number of years a person feels they have lived and into which age group a person categorizes themselves – in relation to this study subjective age relates to how old a person feels when they look in the mirror, how old is the person staring back at them
That may be more than a few and it certainly doesn’t include all of them. However, it does provide you with a grounding and the next time someone asks how old you are, you can clarify which age they are asking (you are certain to be the life of the party!).
These researchers found some great previous data that related to people’s aging perceptions and how they aged, but there was nothing that tracked an individual’s changing perceptions and the downline effects.
They “hypothesized that examining time-related perception change might reflect individuals’ potential to adapt to age-related changes in different domains of functioning (e.g., health, cognition).”
What does that mean?
It means they thought that people’s attitudes about aging may change over time. These changes may make them age either better or worse.
They also surmised that “the subjective age discrepancies would increase over time whereas there would be no change in aging satisfaction.”
What does that mean?
It means they thought people’s opinions of how they looked in the mirror would change (boy, I look much older today than I did last week…) but those changes would not change how they felt about aging (…but I’m still super cool).
They expected “older chronological age and better health status at baseline to be related to larger discrepancies in felt and physical age.” Relatedly, they thought “poor health at baseline to attenuate the rate of change, contributing to reduced increases in subjective age discrepancies and deviations from stability in satisfaction with aging.”
What does that mean?
It means they thought if at the beginning of the study people were older but felt good they would see bigger differences in how old they felt versus how old they were supposed to feel (I know I’m 80 but I feel like I’m 40 and then, I know I’m 86 but feel 46) as the study continued.
And, the reverse would also apply. If, at the beginning of the study, a person was in poor health they would feel old and that would continue as the study progressed (I know I’m 80 and I feel like I’m 80 and then, I know I’m 86 and I feel like 86 or maybe 90).
They also took “perceived lack of social contact, cognitive functioning, gender and socioeconomic status into consideration but did not expect them to significantly account for individual differences in level or change.”
What does that mean?
It means they were going to look at how much social contact a person engaged in but didn’t think it would make any difference in their study.
How Was the Research Obtained?
This research team used longitudinal data from the Berlin Aging Study (BASE), collected over 6 years. 516 people participated. Trained research assistants assessed each individual participant face to face. Each session lasted on average 90 minutes and, except for some medical assessments, took place at the participant’s place of residence.
It is important to note the participants were on the older chronological age spectrum. This group was between the ages of 70 and 104 with an average age of 84.9.
What Did They Find?
Participants generally felt younger than they actually were and showed relatively high levels of aging satisfaction over time.
Participants felt age did not change over time. Individuals felt 12.86 years younger than their actual age over time.
Participants having a higher number of illnesses and reporting less social loneliness compared with the average sample was associated with a smaller discrepancy between felt and actual age
Higher satisfaction with aging was reported by those who:
- were male
- had a smaller number of illnesses
- showed lower social loneliness
- displayed higher cognitive function
The hypotheses that subjective age discrepancies would increase over time and that satisfaction with aging would show no change were not confirmed. Instead, they found that there was no time-related change in the felt age discrepancy on average, whereas the gap between physical age and actual age was reduced over time and satisfaction with aging decreased.
Generally, over time, people always felt 13 years younger on average. The researchers gave two possible explanations for this. On the positive side, a 13-year discrepancy is an optimal illusion about age during old-age that enhances well-being. On the negative side, lack of change in felt age discrepancy suggests that old-age constrains the efficacy of processes associated with sustaining positive self-perceptions of aging.
Okay, I didn’t love this one. Shocked? I was!
To me, it seemed it started with a lot of great ideas but in the end, it didn’t come away with many results.
This is a good lesson though. This is part of research, a big part.
Every study can’t be groundbreaking but they are all important.
They may give a small nugget of information that leads to something groundbreaking. They give just enough data to understand that maybe a new way of thinking is necessary. Or maybe the current line of thinking is on the right track.
However, there are other reasons I didn’t love it.
I was interested to see information on those who didn’t make it from the first interview to the six-year later interview (they most likely passed away or were not capable of conducting the interview). Did they have a more negative perception of aging? Did they have a smaller difference between felt age and chronological age? Tons of data to mine there, in my opinion.
Also, they added that they found women older than 70 might experience physical appearance more negatively than older men do, which could contribute to less positive self-perceptions of aging but suggest more research in this area.
This makes me angry. Stop researching this area or suggesting research in this area.
Of course, women experience more negativity related to physical appearance. This begins at birth. Take a walk around a baby clothing store. Three-quarters of the store is filled with girl clothes. It continues from there. How many beauty products are offered to men versus women? How many beauty magazines are targeted to men versus women?
Women are judged by their physical appearance, most harshly by themselves. Let’s do some research on how to change that!
Side note: I’m certain there is a ton of research on the above but that’s not my area of interest. I wish in the case of the research I am interested in we could take this as a fact and get to some more interesting aging data.
I’d LOVE to hear what you think.
Did you like the study?
Do you agree we can put the “women are more affected by their physical appearance” revelation to bed?